James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed “Big Dog” of American detective fiction, who’s portrayed the history of Los Angeles and, in his latter-day trilogies, the United States, as a sour cesspool that wants only for more fascism to right the ship of state, wrote “Rampart” as an original screenplay, which Oren Moverman, writer-director of “The Messenger” and co-writer of “I’m Not There” and “Jesus’ Son,” was later hired to revise. While it lacks the sprawl of “L.A. Confidential,” even in Moverman’s less authoritarian view, it bears a compact critique of macho bravado that takes a few chunks out of Ellroy World. Set in 1999 L.A., Woody Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a cop in the scandal-plagued Rampart precinct who takes the law into his own hands often and gleefully. Moverman and Harrelson chart a requiem for Brown in the form of a sustained and vitriolic meltdown. “Drive” may have been a neon-noir, gliding through Los Angeles by night, but “Rampart” revels in the dry sandy sun of the city. “Rampart” is the kind of movie that harks back to a perhaps-never-was Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s: a character study that’s allowed to seethe, simmer and detonate, powered by straightforward cinematography on well-chosen locations and by performances that start at scalding, then rev up. Plus the lingo: oh the talk. Dave Brown is the most articulate Cro-Magnon in an age. He’s no “Bad Lieutenant,” but he’d like you to share his hell, just for a little while. Harrelson, like Moverman, sees little need to explain Brown: his performance is emphatic without necessarily ever becoming empathetic. His brute intensity is a wonder in itself. With Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon. 105m. (Ray Pride)
“Rampart” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.