Written and directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube. Rated R. Running time: 108 minutes.
Woody Harrelson cuts through the screen in Rampart; rail thin, sinewy, his body all sharp angles, he resembles a human bayonet.
As veteran LAPD hard-ass Dave Brown, he's a living weapon that can only move in one direction, though the film around him too often feels like it's wandering in circles.
Harrelson is utterly captivating, as the sort of bitter, corrupt L.A. cop you would imagine holding down Rodney King with a smile.
As rigidly as he attempts to maintain order, no aspect of his life is under control. He is fierce, relentless and often petty; he badgers a rookie into finishing her order of fries, because he despises waste.
He views the city streets as his personal dominion and the various gang-bangers, illegals, junkies and vagrants as his punching bags. His fellow officers call him "date rape" behind his back, for Brown's never-proven, extracurricular slaying of a suspected sexual predator — which is not the only uncredited kill on his résumé. His antics have finally gone too far, as the department is still struggling to overcome the bad blood left over from the scandals created by the brutally overzealous Rampart division, and the last thing City Hall needs is another loose cannon with a badge.
When he's not bruising a perp, Dave's working his hostility out on some poor bar conquest or another, though all the women in his life seem equally repulsed and attracted by his caveman tendencies.
Reveling in contradictions and complications as he does, Dave lives in a well-appointed suburban home, with both of his ex-wives, who also happen to be sisters, and he has a teenage daughter by each of them. In a masterful stroke of casting, these wives are played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, high-quality actresses who make a sophisticated, feminine contrast with the rampaging Harrelson. Nixon's character is the more accommodating of the two, but even she has had enough of Dave's manipulative, latent hostility, and keeps nudging him to leave the nest. Predictably, he seeks comfort in precisely the wrong place, between the legs of an equally damaged and ethically challenged lawyer, played with icy sensuality by Robin Wright. Plenty of other sharp, name talents — like Ned Beatty and Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Ice Cube — are on hand, though too often making way for more Harrelson brooding.
For a bigoted, misogynist psycho, Dave is peculiarly cerebral, and prone to pyrotechnic displays of verbal dexterity when sparring with his bosses and various imagined enemies. In truth, he's serving as a clever mouthpiece for omnidirectional conservative rage, his flowery words penned by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), who specializes in exposing the seediest of underbellies and must not be popular with the Los Angeles County tourism bureau.
Rampart is compelling, if not moving; a dynamic, focused Harrelson does everything he can to make the character live, even if he's clearly on a dead-end path. We've seen corrupt cops before, notably in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, though this lacks that film's gothic Catholic trappings, and leaves only the spectacle of a powerful, confused man's slow self-immolation. The flame can captivate us as it flickers, but we know it will soon be snuffed.
Opens Friday, March 9, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.