A lot of talented people have worked overtime to make “Rampart’’ matter. Woody Harrelson gives a ferocious performance as a very bad LA cop and director Oren Moverman, coming off the quiet triumph of 2009’s “The Messenger,’’ throws caution to the Santa Ana winds. The script by Moverman and crime fiction legend James Ellroy is land-mined with profanity and nihilism. Bobby Bukowski’s camerawork practically stands on its head. A Greek chorus of well-known actresses - Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as sisters serially married to the hero, Robin Wright and Audra McDonald as floozies, Sigourney Weaver as a D.A. - offer distressed support.
And all for naught. “Rampart’’ - named for the late-’90s LAPD corruption scandal that has nothing to do with the movie’s plot - is something to see and little to remember, an acrid character study undone by narrative implausibilities and its own lack of purpose. It’s beguilingly busy on the surface, with colorful supporting characters filing in and out and a hot visual scheme of yellows and oranges - hell in late afternoon. But the overdone details can’t disguise an underwritten core.
The film offers us LAPD officer Dave “Date Rape’’ Brown (Harrelson) as the last of his kind, an unrepentant rogue cop who has no idea he’s a dinosaur. It’s 1999 and the Rampart scandal is in the recent past, but Dave still talks racist trash, shakes down local merchants, and mourns for the “glorious soldiers’ department’’ that used to be. He wears his nickname, from a serial rapist he may or may not have dispatched vigilante-style, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. In one late throwaway line, we learn Dave served in Vietnam, but that seems less like motivation than a screenwriter’s last-ditch attempt to tether the character to earth.
The action and absurdities start piling up when Dave is videotaped whaling on a hit-and-run driver with his nightstick. The footage is all over the news a la Rodney King, yet the officer is only temporarily suspended. Desperate for cash, he takes a tip from his retired mentor (Ned Beatty) about a high-stakes poker game just aching to be robbed. This too goes awry in preposterous fashion, and Dave is in deeper than before. Paranoia kicks in, the sisters kick him out, the spiral begins. There’s a midnight visit to a sex club and a drug-trip sequence, the film stacking movie-degradation cliches atop each other like poker chips.
Moverman seems to think that if he keeps introducing new characters and finding unusual places to put his camera, “Rampart’’ will turn into a real movie. In fact, the reverse occurs: The more things happen, the less we care. As intriguing as it is to see the graceful McDonald playing a cop-lover with a foot fetish, or Wright as an alcoholic with “a courtroom suit and litigator eyes,’’ or Ice Cube as a genial internal affairs investigator, or Ben Foster as a homeless crazy, the movie suffers from information overload. One of the better performances comes from Brie Larson as Dave’s seething teenage daughter; it deserves a whole movie and all we get is a drive-by.
The biggest problem with “Rampart’’ is that it’s about the moral awakening of a man who already seems on high alert. Harrelson uses his mischievous charisma to keep us invested in a loathsome man, but he may be too smart an actor for the part, and the script is certainly too smart for its own good. When Dave finally rears up and tells the police board, “I’m a hard-charging, dutiful [expletive], and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,’’ that’s only partly a bad boy in love with his own mouth. It’s also a movie in love with itself.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.