Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Brie Larson, Ice Cube, Ben Foster
By all accounts, Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and director Oren Moverman developed an unusually strong bond during their work together on 2009′s “The Messenger,” a gritty, character-rooted drama about the difficulties and emotional turbulence faced by a pair of soldiers — one a veteran, one new to the assignment — who work as part of the Army’s notification team for the next of kin of deceased soldiers. The film netted Harrelson a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (and a Best Original Screenplay nod to boot), and so the trio reteamed for “Rampart,” co-written and directed by Moverman, starring Harrelson, and co-produced by Foster, who also pops up in a small supporting role.
A “bad cop” drama somewhat in the vein of “Street Kings” and “Narc,” and a sort of West Coast companion to “Bad Lieutenant,” the film, set in 1999, centers on an arrogant, chauvinistic and otherwise prejudiced police officer who finds the sins of his hotheadedness and long accepted procedural shortcuts finally closing in and crumbling down around him. If a bit short on psychological perspicacity, Moverman’s movie at least provides a solid vehicle of display for Harrelson’s squirrelly, off-kilter intensity.
Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a Vietnam veteran, father of two daughters, and longtime officer in Los Angeles’ corruption-riddled Rampart division who asserts his own warped code of justice to perpetuate and maintain his action-hero state of mind. Beset with financial problems, and stuck in a fantastically bizarre cohabitation with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who also happen to be sisters, Brown trips headlong into another romantic entanglement with Linda Fentress (Robin Wright), a woman with ties to an ongoing investigation into professional misconduct. Looking to extricate himself from messes of his own inethical creation, Brown looks to bump off some criminals and steal their loot.
“Rampart” is co-written by novelist James Ellroy, which probably helps explain a fair amount of the scuzzy authenticity it exudes. There’s a genuine sense of sun-baked, cracked, low-level menace that hangs over the movie’s proceedings, like the lazy, grey haze of a Southern California morning clinging to the San Fernando Valley skyline. It’s a bit disappointing, then, that Moverman’s film never quite seems to find the higher gears which would allow it to hum. There are plenty of scenes built for showcase impact — Brown verbally sparring with a departmental psychologist (Sigourney Weaver), reaching out to a mentor (Ned Beatty) clearly becoming fed up with him, and even some moments of attempted connection and reconciliation with his sullen older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson). But it doesn’t all cohere in a deeply meaningful or satisfying way, and the sexually charged material with Linda comes across as an intellectualized film school student aping of Joe Eszterhas, circa 1996.
Having gotten his start as Woody on the hit sitcom “Cheers,” Harrelson has something of a guileless touch with changelings, but Brown is a ferociously intelligent guy who has soldered his intellect to his twin senses of resentment and entitlement, rendering himself not so much a wide-striding sociopath as a smug authority figure who has disgust for the world at large but, ironically, even more outsized contempt for other authority figures. Brown is an aging fighter, but cornered and still dangerous, and Harrelson’s performance — with all that energy as frequently as not channeled inward — always keeps one guessing as to how everything will eventually shake out. He makes “Rampart” something interesting, even if we’ve seen many variations on this story before.
Written by: Brent Simon