In the late 1990s, more than 70 police officers associated with the LAPD Rampart Division were implicated in a widespread scandal involving brutality, falsifying evidence, and other forms of misconduct. At least three officers were found to be on the payroll of ex-con and former CEO of Death Row Records Suge Knight. Oren Moverman's hard-boiled character study Rampart places its central character against a backdrop of LAPD disgrace and public suspicion in 1999.
Uniformed police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) dismisses the Rampart scandal as an instance of two corrupt cops bringing down an entire department. Dave isn't exactly a model of restraint and probity — his nickname "Date-Rape Dave" refers to unproven allegations that he murdered a serial sex offender years earlier. Violent and casually bigoted, Dave relishes his role as an Alpha Male cop, sweating suspects and intimidating rookies. If Dave proves reminiscent of other self-destructive movie cops, like the loose-cannon protagonists of the Bad Lieutenant films, Rampart respects Dave's complex personality even as it documents his downfall.
Dave is no ignorant brute. A Vietnam vet who's spent 24 years in the force, he also went to law school and can quote legal precedents better than most lawyers. He treasures his two daughters (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky), each the child of a marriage to a different sister (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche). "I married your moms consecutively," he explains to his younger daughter, assuring her — and the audience — that there was no inbreeding involved. Dave's daughters and exes live under the same roof, and he's forever outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the canny, confident women.
Dave's darker impulses begin to slip the leash after a motorist T-bones his squad car and Dave is caught on tape giving him a vicious beating. Amid a charged political atmosphere rife with civil lawsuits and disciplinary hearings, Dave begins to wonder if the LAPD will use him as a scapegoat for the Rampart scandal.
Dave closely resembles the typical antihero of co-screenwriter James Ellroy, best known as the author of L.A. Confidential. Most of Ellroy's works show simultaneous revulsion at and attraction to violent cops and hired thugs. Where Ellroy can sometimes seem like an apologist for sadists willing to break the law to protect the peace, director/co-writer Moverman provides a more humanistic counterweight, with sensitivity that refuses to glorify or demonize the character.
Moverman, as he showed in his previous film The Messenger, tends to compress his drama into one-on-one dialogue scenes. Harrelson engages in rich, volleying conversations with Ned Beatty as his retired but still connected mentor; Robin Wright as a haunted new girlfriend with a hidden agenda; Ice Cube as a legal investigator who brings out his racial animosity; and Ben Foster as a paraplegic war veteran and informant.
Rampart succumbs to clichés of personal dissolution in its third act. At one point Dave visits what appears to be the West Coast franchise of Michael Fassbender's underground sex club in Shame. Harrelson never makes Dave a caricature of masculine arrogance. His performance throughout the film becomes increasingly implosive. As he faces the potential loss of his job and estrangement from family, he lashes out at enemies but broods miserably alone, as if he knows he can't undo the things he's done. For all of Dave's misdeeds, you can't simply dismiss him as a bad cop.