Rampart - Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson
Alcoholic informant General Terry (Ben Foster) confers with dirty cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

The Rampart poster’s claim that the film features “The Most Corrupt Cop You’ve Ever Seen Onscreen” falls short by several orders of magnitude when the movie is compared to far seedier fare such as 1981’s Bad Lieutenant, or 2009’s even more outrageous Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A more accurate description of amoral officer Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson) might be “the most frustrated, angry and miserable cop you’ve ever seen onscreen.” This gloomy Gus with an attitude may as well walk around with a black cloud raining on his balding head.

The movie’s title also is misleading. James Ellroy’s completely fictional screenplay has nothing to do with the 1990s Los Angeles Police Department Rampart division scandal. Instead, it focuses on a made-up cop who works in the precinct after those events took place. That’s like calling a movie about a fictional burglary during the Jimmy Carter administration Watergate and not expecting viewers to feel cheated.

While the racist and sexist Officer Brown isn’t above a little after-hours robbery and murder, he’s ultimately more mopey than malevolent. Director/co-writer Oren Moverman (who previously directed Harrelson in 2009’s The Messenger) apparently hoped to make the character more sympathetic than the one portrayed in Ellroy’s original script. Moverman was responsible for augmenting Brown’s loose-cannon lawlessness with some overbaked “misunderstood family man” neediness.

Rampart - Robin Wright and Woody Harrelson
Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) and Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) share a rare tender moment © 2011 Millennium Entertainment

As an emotionally distant dad with daughters from two mothers (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) who also happen to be sisters, Brown comes off like a soap opera Dirty Harry who’s partial to drinking on the job. He tries explaining his bad behavior to one of his kids by saying, “I never hurt any good people.” She hits the mawkish dialog bulls-eye by replying, “What about us?”

Rampart plays more like an extended acting assignment — “show me more seething bitterness and unfocused angst” — than a story. Harrelson is convincing as a snide bully with a permanent mad-on, but that won’t keep audiences from hoping for more plot. Caught on tape beating a suspect in a situation that may have been a set-up, officer Brown spends the rest of the movie smartassing to authority figures and coming up with lawyer money through less than legal means.

Supporting characters include Sigourney Weaver as an assistant district attorney who wants Brown to retire, Robin Wright as Brown’s seedy love interest and Ned Beatty as a mysterious all-knowing fixer with questionable motives. Ben Foster is convincingly pathetic and put-upon as a homeless, wheelchair-bound snitch.

Rampart was released for a week last December to qualify for Oscar nominations. It received none, possibly due to the fact that grimly depressing unpleasantness is a hard awards-season sell these days. Just ask Melancholia‘s Lars von Trier and Kirsten Dunst.

[Rating: 2.5 stars]

Rampart, goes into wide release in theatres on Friday February 10, 2012

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.