As we see Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) cruise the streets of Los Angeles at the start of Rampart, he appears to be looking for trouble through mirrored shades, a missile in search of a target.
It quickly becomes clear that “to serve and protect” is low on this Vietnam vet’s list of priorities. He’s all for beating up perps, even when not framing them; he earned the nickname “Date Rape” after gunning down a suspected serial rapist; he has a daughter each by two common-law wives who happen to be sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche); and beyond that, he sleeps around with any lady who’ll give him a giggle at the bar.
Life’s going pretty good for this bad boy until he’s caught brutalizing a suspect on tape. Now, he’s the poster child for a police district already choked by corruption and criticism -- the film is set in 1999, against the backdrop of the real-life Rampart scandal -- making him a prime scapegoat for media attention. Before you can say “Internal Affairs investigation,” Dave’s entire irresponsible existence is crashing down around him.
It sounds a bit like either version of Bad Lieutenant, it’s being sold a bit like Training Day, and it’s been written at least in part by L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy, but Oren Moverman’s follow-up to The Messenger ultimately isn’t akin to any of those precursors, for better and worse. This is more of an exploration of a character endlessly defending the cavern where his soul used to be, and Harrelson rises to the occasion: physically aggressive on the street, verbally assertive in the office, and increasingly insecure in plain clothes.
Administration (personified by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi), one-night-stands (Robin Wright), snitches (Ben Foster), family members (Brie Larson plays his older daughter), fellow cops -- there isn’t anybody Brown is unwilling to offend. When addressing Ice Cube’s I.A. man, Brown makes it clear: “I’m not a racist. The fact is, I hate all people equally.” It’s to this misanthrope with a badge and a gun that Moverman tethers his narrative, and Harrelson both relishes the conviction with which Brown continually acts out and sells the tumult that follows when he has no one left to hate but himself.
The substantial ensemble is either convincingly falling for his tricks or, more often, plain fed up with him, and the roving camera and persistent background noise convey well enough our protagonist’s ragged, restless, reckless state of mind (though a dizzying merry-go-round maneuver employed during a meeting between Harrelson and Buscemi borders on laughable). However, the story soon proves as unfocused as the scenery, as we slide away from noir conventions (Ned Beatty’s mentor/enabler refuses to reveal who’s gunning for Harrelson’s job) into a downward spiral that coasts to a stop.
If Moverman is going to ask us to keep company with a sociopath for 108 minutes, the least he can do is follow through on Brown’s damnation (though hints are clearly intended to speak volumes). For a film as brash as The Messenger was solemn, Rampart itself becomes a missile indifferent about hitting a target of its own, a one-man show with nowhere to go.