Review: In 'Rampart,' Woody Harrelson shines in dark role

Woody Harrelson brings many facets to the role of a corrupt Los Angeles cop in "Rampart."

Woody Harrelson brings many facets to the role of a corrupt Los Angeles cop in "Rampart."

Los Angeles, 1999 - Officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is a Vietnam vet and a Rampart Precinct cop, dedicated to doing "the people's dirty work" and ...

Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence

Length: 105 minutes

Released: February 10, 2012 Limited

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster

Director: Oren Moverman

Writer: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman

More info and showtimes »

Director Oren Moverman understands that Woody Harrelson is a real actor and makes movies to prove it. Where other directors see comic facility and zaniness, he sees complexity, turbulence and trouble. He sees past the facade of high spirits, and in "Rampart," as in "The Messenger," he gives Harrelson a chance to go into the pain and into the dark. Harrelson comes back with a performance that illuminates and justifies the movie.

"Rampart" is a grim piece of work about a really bad Los Angeles cop with a history of violence. He roughs up suspects, shakes down pharmacists to supply himself with drugs and isn't above pulling holdups of his own when he needs cash. He kills people, sometimes because he thinks they're guilty, sometimes because they have something on him.

Some of this will sound familiar to those who've seen Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" (1992). But Ferrara's masterpiece had an operatic grandeur about it, the sense of an epic spiritual struggle playing out inside one damaged soul. "Rampart" is more secular and less ambitious and thus has less at stake. It's frankly less of a movie, but within its scope, as the portrait of a particular guy — steeped in violence, riding in his car listening to talk radio, and convinced that he is a knight on the frontlines of civilization — it has its own fascination.

The best thing Harrelson brings is his own sweetness of disposition, which somehow never goes completely into hiding. It's most apparent in the scenes inside his household, a crazy set up in which he lives with two ex-wives who happen to be sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) and a daughter from each marriage. His place within the family mirrors his place without it: He sees himself as a flawed but protective presence, when in reality he has little to offer. He is, in fact, the needy one, and no one is really interested in his needs.

Harrelson's achievement is in roping all the various strains of this character — the gentleness, the warmth, the brutality, the canniness, the cluelessness — into one coherent (and oddly engaging) personality. The scenes of violence are effective but few. Mainly "Rampart" plays out in two-person scenes, involving Harrelson and a series of terrific actresses. We find, in addition to Heche and Nixon, Robin Wright as a mystery woman he meets in a bar, Sigourney Weaver as an internal affairs investigator and even Audra McDonald as a one-night stand.

These actresses allow Harrelson to shine — he has always had a way of preening for women — and he brings out the best in them, as they work to maintain their balance, while handling, from moment to moment, a character at once appalling, confident and charming.

These assets make "Rampart" worth seeing. So does Moverman's visual aplomb, which is never for its own sake but always has an instinctive rightness, whether he is showing the bad cop's reflection in the glossy floor of club or moving in on a close-up of Robin Wright's very expressive left eye. But "Rampart" is a somber piece in a minor key, with a certain sameness to the action and inevitability built into the story. It is not a riveting ride, but scene by scene, an interesting one.

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