Inspired by the same LAPD scandal that served as the basis for the TV series The Shield, Oren Moverman’s Rampart takes a more abstract, character-driven approach to the material, keeping its namesake controversy in the background while focusing on the troubles of one particular corrupt and tortured cop. Woody Harrelson plays David Brown, a veteran beat cop who’s also a racist, a thief, a murderer and a burgeoning drug addict, to name just a few of his pertinent qualities. David isn’t caught up in the main part of the Rampart corruption probe, but when he’s captured on camera beating an unarmed man nearly to death, and then later is involved in a highly suspect shooting, he becomes a poster boy for LAPD abuses of power.
Moverman isn’t really interested in the logistics of internal police investigations or the political implications of exposing widespread corruption. Steve Buscemi has a few lines as the district attorney who’s building a case against the corrupt cops, and Ice Cube and Sigourney Weaver each have a couple of scenes as investigators on David’s case, but mostly Moverman spends time with David as his life slowly falls apart, thanks entirely to his own stubborn, sometimes inexplicable actions. Harrelson is fascinating even as the movie meanders sluggishly, and David’s family life, with his two ex-wives (who are also sisters, played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) living together with his two daughters (one from each ex-wife) in a single sprawling compound, ends up more rewarding than the somewhat familiar police-corruption material.
The investigation is so indistinct at times that it’s hard to understand what’s at stake (at one point Ice Cube’s character asks David why he’s still on the force, and the audience may be wondering that as well), but Moverman and his co-writer, crime novelist James Ellroy, create an effective atmosphere of danger and dread, helped by the lush cinematography and Harrelson’s on-edge performance. The movie eventually peters out before wrapping up any of the emotional or procedural threads, but the dark feeling it captures is more important than the details of the hazy plot.