The new corrupt-cop thriller doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend about it except for a blowout, Oscar-caliber performance by Woody Harrelson. It’s not competently directed, and the plot is convoluted, but Harrelson’s turn makes it worthwhile almost all by itself.
Directed by Israeli-American auteur Oren Moverman- who also made Harrelson’s Iraq war movie “The Messenger”- “Rampart” is set in the aftermath of the Rampart scandal in the late ’90s. The scandal was a nightmarishly large-scale LAPD corruption disaster that led to the freeing of dozens of criminals and, according to one book I read, was even tangentially connected to the murders of Biggie and Tupac.
The film isn’t really “about” the Rampart scandal, but rather tells the story of one cop who brings trouble to the department in the days afterward. Harrelson is Dave “Date Rape” Brown- so called because he’s reputed to have once killed a date rapist in cold blood- an alcoholic, violent, womanizing racist forced to confront the error of his ways.
In the days that the department is still confronting the need to pay out millions in penalties connected to the scandal, Brown gives them another headache when he’s caught on tape beating a suspect, Rodney King-style. He spends the rest of the film fighting the charges, while also trying to make money by illicit means, carry on an affair with a lawyer (Robin Wright) and manage his unconventional family life. His two ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche) are sisters, live together, and each have one of his daughters.
A big strength of the film is the supporting cast, featuring Ned Beatty as a corrupt ex-cop, Sigourney Weaver as a member of the police brass, Ice Cube as an investigator and Brie Larson as Harrelson’s Daughter. And it’s a rice treat that Robert Wisdom, who played police major Bunny Colvin on “The Wire,” once again dons the uniform as Harrelson’s captain.
However, these performances are all but overshadowed by a “gritty” visual style that gets tiresome very fast, not to mention a plot with little momentum, one that ends strangely abruptly.
The other problem is that the great cop series “The Shield”- also based on the “Rampart” scandal- hangs over the film like a shadow, having featured a protagonist more interesting and multifaceted that Date Rape Brown. So too does the original “Bad Lieutenant” and its totally bonkers, Nicolas Cage/Wender Herzog remake.