‘Rampart’: Woody Harrelson fully embraces bristling bad-cop role

  • Thu Mar 1st, 2012 8:30am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Watching violent self-destruction play out for 108 minutes on screen is a tough sell, and you can understand how “Rampart” has had a difficult time getting traction. This is a “bad cop” movie, in which redemption seems unlikely.

Bad cop Dave Brown is embodied with such gusto and fervor by Woody Harrelson that the character never goes stale (and rarely stops moving). Harrelson’s riveting to watch: He’s shed his body fat so he looks like a bone and skin, and he spits out his rat-a-tat dialogue as though firing a weapon of preemptive self-defense.

Brown is a 24-year LAPD officer and Vietnam vet, juggling ex-wives and daughters while a brutality investigation focuses on his questionable behavior in uniform. The film is set in 1999, so the real-life Rampart corruption scandal is unfolding in the background.

This subject matter sounds like the stuff of many a gritty TV series and movie. But “Rampart” stands out for its unusual approach; some of the tang comes from the script co-written by veteran crime writer James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential”), and some from the hothouse directing style of Oren Moverman, whose previous film “The Messenger” also starred Harrelson.

Moverman manages to make a dinnertable scene hum with uncomfortable intensity, and he seems willing to sacrifice a certain clarity (it isn’t always obvious what the various relationships or living situations are in the movie, or what becomes of certain characters) if it means creating a nervous mood.

The interesting wrinkle about Harrelson’s character is his self-awareness, the opposite of some movie anti-heroes. This guy is smart and articulate, and some of his provocations are calculated to achieve a certain end. But his awareness makes his plight worse: He knows what he’s doing to himself, and to the people around him, but he just keeps spiraling.

Bouncing off Harrelson at various points are Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon (I think they are both ex-wives), Ned Beatty and Ice Cube as members of the LAPD, and Robin Wright as a particularly vivid pick-up (Brown is a compulsive womanizer).

Wright’s character may be more than a random pick-up, although we’re not sure. Brown is paranoid about being set up as a sacrificial lamb, so he suspects the people who come into his orbit. And he might be right about that.

Not everything works here, and Moverman’s take-it-or-leave-it style can seem hostile at times. Also, this is another in a recent run of movies that end on a suspended note, without the expected resolution. It makes sense in this case: There’s no way out for Dave Brown, whose future is anything but rosy.

“Rampart” (3 stars)

A bad LAPD cop (gutsy performance by Woody Harrelson) spirals downward in the midst of a brutality investigation, a situation co-written by James Ellroy and directed with hothouse intensity by Oren Moverman. The film leaves some questions unanswered and it’s almost hostile in its take-it-or-leave-it style, but it sure is convincingly intense.

Rated: R for language, violence, subject matter.

Showing: Harvard Exit.