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There’s suspiciously little arresting going on in Oren Moverman’s policier “Rampart,” except for Woody Harrelson’s lead performance in it. Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a cop more likely to grab his gun than his handcuffs when approaching a perp, though he isn’t required to do either much when the mere act of backing up his car causes shady types to flee street corners he passes by.
With such power comes arrogance and Moverman, in his second collaboration with Harrelson, intends to explore it fully. “Rampart” is led not by the demands of a plot, which is ostensibly about the status of Brown’s badge following the officer’s brutal beating of a man who crashes into his car one afternoon, but by the gradual loss of control Brown experiences when he comes under scrutiny. The narrative itself is slippery, following Brown into the home he shares with two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) he was married to “consecutively not concurrently,” bars and bedrooms with a moderately sympathetic mystery woman (Robin Wright), and through the chain of command at the LAPD where he is at his most elusive.
Brown is a lone wolf and Harrelson is ferocious in the part, convincingly seductive enough to keep his opponents at bay as well as his unusual domestic arrangement intact while letting his more feral nature ooze out in racist asides and unsuccessful attempts at self-preservation born out of his baser instincts. Perhaps it’s because he so thoroughly owns the film that “Rampart”’s largely recognizable supporting cast falls by the wayside.
Famous faces such as Sigourney Weaver as Brown’s superior and Ice Cube as an investigator for the district attorney stand their ground, clearly hired to bring an instant gravitas to roles that last just a scene or more, but not making much more of an impression. This isn’t to say they’re wasted, but they mirror their characters in being inconsequential to Brown’s bull in a china shop and for some reason, it’s unsurprising that when the less currently ubiquitous Ned Beatty shows up as a retired pal of Brown who attempts to help keep his head above water, it’s the most effective subplot of the film. In the film’s other major arc, Wright, as a character every bit as self-defeating as Harrelson’s, isn’t nearly as compelling without the benefit of the same amount of time on screen as him or a reason to enter Brown’s world as something other than a story device.
That it’s noticeable is actually a testament to the reality of the rest of “Rampart,” which doesn’t have the determinedly kicky, transgressive pleasures of the film I’ve heard it compared to most, “Bad Lieutenant,” but the more enduring ones that sink in as Brown’s world collapses in around him. Some of the film’s stylistic touches — the numerous dutch angles in cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camerawork, a particular soundtrack needle drop during a club scene – could be accused of calling attention to themselves, yet “Rampart” is engrossing enough to forgive them, settling into a culture of corruption where the rough edges of the frame resemble the fraying image of the once noble profession Brown comes to represent.
Apart from the title card that announces the film occurs in Los Angeles in 1999, the scandal that engulfed the entire Rampart division during that time is rarely directly invoked and one suspects the same could be said of James Ellroy’s original script for the film since the final product is far more ambivalent than the prolific crime author is known for. However, Moverman crucially gets the essence of both, telling the story of an entire department through just one officer and doing so with a hardened gaze, a sharp sense of humor and a distinct measure of justice. Though the men who cross Brown’s path are unlikely to get a fair hearing, “Rampart” offers one for its lead and creates an indelible portrait in the process.