Usually, you need two people to play good cop/bad cop, but in "Rampart," Woody Harrelson plays both all by himself.
Or at least that's what you're supposed to think. He's a devoted but distant father, a strong and capable police officer and even somewhat misunderstood. But in the end, it turns out he's playing a game of bad cop/worse cop: The final question is whether Mr. Harrelson's skeezy L.A. enforcer is merely awful or something altogether worse.
To "Rampart's" credit, it doesn't force the audience to decide one way or another. By the same token, the movie's biggest weakness is that it never quite decides — or provides viewers enough information to make their own choice.
Mr. Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a thuggish but effective L.A. cop circa 1999. It's the end of the millennium and the end of his brand of no-rules police brutality. Brown is casually racist, corrupt and mildly misogynistic, though he insists he harbors no special prejudice: "I hate all people equally," he tells a police investigator. Indeed, the only exceptions are the women in his family he flails to protect: his two former wives (they're sisters) and the daughters he fathered from each.
With his unusual family life and his constant alpha-male strutting while on duty, Dave comes off as a tribal warrior counting down the end of his reign — a jungle king struggling to assert his dominance in his final days.
Is Dave a basically decent family man doing what's necessary — or a thuggish authoritarian flailing as his empire crumbles? The movie clearly leans toward the latter but never loads too many bullets into the chamber: Dave may be a bad cop, but he's portrayed more as a trapped animal protecting his turf than a savvy calculator of corruption.
Mr. Harrelson's magnificent performance, which recalls everything from Robert De Niro's twisted turn as urban avenger Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" to the self-loathingdisplayed by Michael Fassbender in last year's "Shame," is the best reason to see the movie: He's crazed and controlled, brutal and gentle, explosive and cautious — frequently all at once. He's a mystery, but not a puzzle: "Rampart" is the rare movie that offers an incredibly intimate character portrait that is at once thorough, believable and ultimately unknowable.
Much of the credit for this accomplishment also goes to novelist James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), who co-wrote the screenplay. Mr. Ellroy's script is built out of tiny, gripping conversation fragments, each a tiny window into Dave's life. It doesn't always quite hang together, but the individual scenes crackle — it certainly helps that the supporting cast includes notables such as Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ben Foster and Steve Buscemi in various small parts.
Director and co-writer Oren Moverman is less successful, awkwardly combining documentary grit with out-of-place film school mumbo-jumbo. He can never quite decide whether he wants to be real or surreal. Mr. Harrelson, on the other hand, succeeds by managing to be both.
A sort of existential bad-cop flick, "Rampart" persuasively ponders the gritty poetry of police corruption, but its incomplete portrait leaves something to be desired.
CREDITS: Directed by Oren Moverman, screenplay by Mr. Moverman and James Ellroy
RATING: R for sex, violence, bad-cop hijinks
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS