“Rampart” director Oren Moverman struck a nerve with his 2009 debut, “The Messenger,” a quiet drama about the costs of war that garnered a lot of attention for Woody Harrelson’s live-wire performance. The idea of Moverman re-teaming with Harrelson for an examination of LAPD corruption is a compelling one. Though the film is unfortunately a bit of a disappointment, Harrelson’s performance is anything but.
Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a police officer who finds himself the last dirty cop in an LAPD ravaged by allegations of corruption and criminal activity. Dave has to juggle between police brutality complaints, two ex-wives (who happen to be sisters, played as wonderfully weary by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), each with their own daughter and an Internal Affairs agent (Ice Cube) with a target on Dave’s back.
Despite all this, “Rampart” is ultimately a mood piece about a man under remarkable pressure, and Harrelson makes every moment we spend with him valuable. He plays Dave’s many facets with equal fervor and packs the character with all of the ambiguity we find among the great dramatic antiheroes. It’s fascinating to watch Dave eloquently lie in his own defense even as he deteriorates before our eyes and Harrelson brings his decline home with remarkable focus.
Harrelson is backed by a remarkable ensemble, and its most compelling members are the ones most poisonous to Dave. Ned Beatty shines as Dave’s mentor, a reflection of the LAPD Dave is the last member of and the devil on his shoulder, always prodding him towards another bad decision. Robin Wright plays Dave’s love interest, and she’s fascinating to watch as she slowly realizes who she’s gotten involved with. Shockingly, the most effective of all might be Brie Larson, playing Dave’s daughter. All the other characters Dave bounces off of choose to be involved with him for one reason or another, but Larson truly strikes a nerve as a poor girl trapped with this irredeemable mess for a father.
Most of “Rampart’s” weaknesses lie in its aesthetic and screenplay. The film is often confidently directed with a precise sense of place, and Moverman sometimes holds on shots for a startlingly long time, forcing us to relish in the destruction his hero creates. Other times, shots can call undue attention to themselves, particularly in Steve Buscemi’s single scene, which is filmed as if the characters aren’t even in the same room together.
“Rampart’s” story isn’t exactly weak, as Dave’s downfall is enormously compelling, but it fails to build to a satisfying conclusion. Once the credits roll, there’s no sense there’s been any concrete change for Dave or the people around him, leaving “Rampart” as a sometimes unfulfilling but enormously watchable showcase for Woody Harrelson, who never disappoints, even when the film around him does.