"Rampart" patrols some familiar streets, but this jarringly intimate study of a dirty Los Angeles cop sliding, crazily, down the drain has a distinctive new-cliche smell, pungent and alive. The story, which is more about observation than propulsion, suits what interests the filmmakers most: the scary charisma and dazzling hubris of Officer Dave Brown, played with wholehearted ferocity by Woody Harrelson.
This is co-writer and director Oren Moverman's second feature behind the camera. His first, "The Messenger," co-starred Harrelson in an Oscar-nominated performance as a U.S. Army casualty notifications officer, the bearer of very bad news. In "Rampart," Harrelson's character is the bad news. A 24-year veteran of the LAPD, Dave — nicknamed "Date Rape Dave," for the sex criminal he targeted and then killed some years earlier — longs for the old days, before the Rampart Division scandal led to a crackdown on all the freestyle brutality. "This used to be a glorious soldiers department," he says.
His life has complications. Dave lives with not one but two ex-wives who are also sisters, played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche. They coexist in a comfortable, upper-middle-class compound, along with a daughter by each ex. Increasingly intent on getting Dave to take his toxic, controlling act elsewhere, Nixon's character pleads: "You gotta let us go." No chance, Dave replies. The family, such as it is, must be kept together.
The movie takes place in 1999. When Dave is caught on video beating a man half to death, "Rampart" consciously echoes a host of real-life LAPD infractions of that time. Dave is a volatile master of coercion, blackmail, graft and self-interest, and he learned from his betters, one of whom (a friend of the family) is played by Ned Beatty, grimy to the core. Robin Wright plays a defense attorney sick of letting too many criminals go free too easily; in bed and out of it, she's Dave's partner in loathing and resentments. Little scenes pay off in unexpected ways here; Audra McDonald appears in two vignettes as a bar pickup with a thing for cops, but she and Harrelson work them for all they're worth.
This is not a conventionally exciting procedural, and it's not meant to be. Co-written by James "L.A. Confidential" Ellroy, "Rampart" stays close to its drug-addled powder keg. At times the script falls too in love with Dave's rhetorical flights of fancy. (Ellroy's dialogue always sounds better when set in earlier eras.) When Dave mentions the "somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds" of the LAPD, the line's meant to be showoffy, but there are a lot of these sorts of flourishes, some more suited to the character than others.
"Rampart" does not ratchet up the tension in its final half-hour. It's about a man taking a dying fall, trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughters while settling every score he can. Clearly a fan of Robert Altman's slow-zooms and pullbacks, Moverman's camera is a sidewinder, and he has excellent instincts regarding when, and how, to bite off the end of a scene. The director tries some moves that simply don't work, such as the whiplash swish-pans in a confrontation with Harrelson against Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi. But in relation to the well-made and sensitive confines of "The Messenger," "Rampart" required a more unruly visual approach. Beginning and ending with Harrelson, this sophomore effort is full of malignant life.
'Rampart' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence)
Running time: 1:43