Rampart, featuring a shattering performance by Woody Harrelson as a messed-up Los Angeles cop with a mean streak and a pitiful capacity for self-harm, is the second Harrelson film to be directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger brought Harrelson an Oscar nomination in 2011) and his first collaboration with former Kansas Citian James Ellroy.
As a single-minded unit, the trio bravely bring to the screen a contemporary film noir bearing the slick sheen of something you wouldn't want to touch but cannot ignore.
To boot, Dave Brown, Harrelson's rogue officer, has a drinking problem and severe anger management issues; he says at one point, "I'm not a racist. I hate all people." Several years prior to the story on screen, his character had killed a suspect who'd become known as "Date Rape Dave," an act that still haunts him.
Back in the present, he's caught on tape beating the Mexican driver of a vehicle that blind-sides his patrol car, setting up a detailed examination of not only the assault but Harrelson's relationships with his superiors, his ex-wives and daughters, and people who informed his past and may well his future. One need only scan the cast list of actors playing these various characters to see why the film has value: Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Robin Wright and Harrelson's intense Messenger co-star Ben Foster.
Harrelson does get a fair amount of respect in the industry; his previous Oscar nomination was his indelible performance as Hustler magazine magnate Larry Flynt. Still, he's underrated, and there was talk prior to the movie's fumbled, inconsistent distribution that he'd get another nomination for his work here. He would have deserved it; his performance is like an open wound. The film is as bleak as a La Brea tar pit, but that's kind of where Ellroy's skewed perception of Los Angeles always take him. (His mother was murdered there when he was a boy.) You're not going to leave the movie singing a theme song but instead with a heightened respect for what kind of film acting is possible when all the artists involved share a common purpose.