Anyone familiar with the TV series The Shield already knows the basic premise of the James Ellroy-penned, Oren Moverman-directed Rampart, a movie that—like The Shield—is based on the real-life case of a corrupt division of the LAPD. Woody Harrelson plays one of those dirty cops: a pill-popping, self-proclaimed fascist who won’t let public shaming, federal investigations, or alienation from his family stop him from using excessive force on suspects, or from orchestrating his own crimes. In Shield terms, Harrelson is an unrepentant Vic Mackey, imagining himself as imposing a higher order on the chaos of the city, when he’s really just indulging himself.
Of course, The Shield spent seven dense seasons on what Rampart tries to do in two hours. But Ellroy and Moverman aren’t aiming for anything as plotty as a television show. Rampart is more expressly a character sketch, sometimes to its detriment. The movie zooms from incident to incident, piling up examples of the anti-hero’s misdeeds, primarily so it can ponder how one man could be so stubbornly wicked. Instead of a clean, coherent narrative, Moverman fills the screen with recognizable faces, who each wander through for a few scenes. Robin Wright shows up as a lawyer who’s attracted to Harrelson, even though she’s trying to bring him down; Ned Beatty plays an ex-cop who helps hook Harrelson up with illicit jobs; Ice Cube is a colleague looking into the racially motivated aspects of Harrelson’s crimes; Ben Foster is a paraplegic alcoholic informant; Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon play Harrelson’s ex-wives, who live together with their daughters and reluctantly allow Harrelson to stay with them; and on and on. Aside from the protagonist, no one sticks around long enough to leave more than an impression. They all become elements of Moverman’s aggressively scattered style, as significant as Rampart’s diffuse lighting and forced camera angles.
But Harrelson thrives amid the restlessness, and gives perhaps the peak performance of his increasingly distinguished career. He creates a character who’s cocky and sure of his worldview, even though he knows that if he softened a little, it’d make everyone he lives or works with so much happier. Ultimately, every other character in Rampart matters only inasmuch as they impede Harrelson, either by nagging at what’s left of his conscience, or actively working to keep him off the streets. The crimes also matter less than how Harrelson justifies them, as the price he exacts for dispensing true justice. Rampart is set in the ’90s, but the type at its center is timeless: the kind of man who grins like a mischievous little boy while he destroys everything he touches.