Stop us if you've heard this movie synopsis before.
A crooked L.A. cop is his own worst enemy, treating suspects like convicted criminals and drinking himself into a near-daily stupor. Oh, and he stumbles from one woman's bed to the next, never lingering long enough to leave so much as an indentation on their mattresses.
[youtube SGHPD3IYnd0 nolink]
Woody Harrelson turns every cop cliché on its ear in the blistering new drama "Rampart." But as good as Harrelson is, and he's certainly worthy of Best Actor buzz, it doesn't make the film's unrelentingly dour tone any easier to swallow. Seeing the worst of humanity in crisp police blues is a potent experience until we sense the film has little interest in sharing anything else about the human condition.
Director Oren Moverman, who worked with Harrelson in the 2009 drama "The Messenger,"draws the very best out of the actor once more in this gritty cop yarn. Harrelson plays Dave Brown, an L.A. cop working the beat circa the late 1990s. The city's Rampart Division is under the media microscope for its sundry sins, from racial profiling to outright criminal behavior.
Dave could serve as the poster boy for the embattled division. He bullies first and shoots later, rarely giving suspects the benefit of a solitary doubt. He earned the nickname Date Rape Dave for taking out a guy accused of that unsavory sexual practice, but so far the cop has stayed out of serious trouble.
That changes when a speeding car rams into his police cruiser, and a stranger videotapes Dave jumping out and beating the other car's driver nearly to death. Now, the footage is playing on a loop on every local news station in the city, and the division's heavy hitters (including a no-nonsense investigator played by Sigourney Weaver) are leaning on Dave to admit his guilt.
Being a cop is all Dave knows, and it's the only grounding factor in a life thoroughly off center. He lives with his two-ex wives, sisters who each gave him a child. They all share one dank home, and it's here where we see a flicker of humanity burning in the bullet-headed cop's eyes. He actually thinks he's being a strong family man by keeping the same roof over all of their heads.
"Rampart" powers on thanks to Harrelson's twitchy presence. Dave can be darn near poetic when defending himself against one criminal investigation atop another, but when left to his own moral devices he's far less expressive. And, when more evidence piles up against him, he numbs his pain with the usual narcotics - alcohol and rampantly satiating his sexual appetite.
Co-written by crime scribe James Ellroy, "Rampart" feels like the necessary cop details are all in place. It helps that there's another ace character actor popping up every few minutes, from a shadowy fixer played by Ned Beatty to Harrelson's "Messenger" co-star Ben Foster (who produced "Rampart") as a wheelchair-bound addict.
Robin Wright is given the unfortunate task of playing Dave's unsteady booty call, but the role and its psychological underpinnings don't do the actress justice.
"Rampart" remains an acting showcase for its star as well as a vehicle for character actors eager to sample some well manicured scenery. Those looking for a flicker of decency should search elsewhere. Harrelson's mesmerizing turn is one-way trip down to the bottom.