The hero of the L.A. cop drama Rampart, written by James Ellroy with the director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), is a tough motherfucker who finds himself outnumbered and eventually cornered: by ethnic minorities on the streets he patrols (and those who patrol over him, in turn), and by women - ex-wives, lovers, daughters, partners and lawyers - everywhere else. Woody Harrelson's Officer Dave Brown is a swaggering xenophobe (if not an outright misanthrope) and unapologetic philanderer whose gulp-inducing nickname - "Date Rape" - derives from an incident in his past whereupon he stopped a serial rapist with typically extreme prejudice.
From this fact alone, we might conclude Brown is another of Ellroy's trademark knights in tarnished armour, a brother to Bud White or Dave Klein; he's certainly considered the squadroom's go-to guy, an experienced pro who gets the job done, whether with street smarts, his bare fists or the regulation-issue billyclub. Yet whether behind the wheel of his black-and-white, or on the barstools he haunts at night, Brown appears to be cruising on borrowed time: as more than one character notes, he's a dinosaur, a representative of that white male America that thinks it owns the place. The title refers to the corruption scandal that enveloped the LAPD at the end of the 1990s, the decade that began with Rodney King - and elements of that particular shitstorm blow up again when Brown is videotaped beating seven bells out of a black motorist who sideswipes his vehicle, the latest in a long line of lapses threatening to bring the officer's career in uniform to an end.
What The Messenger demonstrated more than anything else was the trust Moverman puts in his writing and actors. Some of this is again in evidence here: from the opening moments, he allows unmitigated bursts of borderline-incomprehensible (yet not atypical) Ellroyese, sets up semi-improvised confrontations and ambushes for his lead to walk into, and generally refuses to shoehorn the drama into a particular shape, lest it ill reflect the life of a protagonist who takes such puffed-chest pride in living outside the usual structures. Sections of the film seem like the sustained interrogation Dave Brown has thus far eluded, but sometimes Rampart feels overly accommodating towards its bullying lead character; it's a peculiar tension - perhaps that between the famously uncompromising Ellroy, and his more peaceable co-writer? - and the film, for better or worse, never quite resolves it.
Early on in Rampart, we catch a glimpse of the collage Brown's estranged artist daughter has affixed to a wall in the family home (tellingly, it has an angry "CUNT" at the centre), and Moverman's directorial approach here might be described as similarly cubist: he shoots Harrelson in a variety of tight angles, in bitty segment-scenes that refuse straight narrative lines in favour of trying to reconstruct a rapidly fragmenting personality. The scenario doesn't have the door-to-door hook of The Messenger, nor does it allow us the comic relief that comes from pairing Harrelson in a double-act: Ben Foster, the actor's foil in the earlier film, reappears as a wheelchair-bound informant Brown delights in torturing. No, this is a sweaty, bull-headed, red-faced Harrelson being all bad-ass, all the way through: it's the definition of a meaty role, but while allowing his lead actor practically the whole of the screen to flex his muscles and pop his veins, Moverman can't ever pin the character down. (The ending - which is bound to divide an audience - offers Brown either a free pass, or no easy way out, depending on your perspective.)
The film's success or otherwise rests largely, then, on how much Ellroy, and how much of Ellroy's Dave Brown, you're ready to take: there's a fine line between a director trusting the writing, and one waving through material that has the blustery whiff of BS about it. At times, Rampart resembles less a standalone feature than a prequel to The Shield, the Ellroy-influenced TV show that felt compelled to take a sledgehammer to the viewer's head in the name of gritty authenticity; certain segments - particularly Brown's relationship to his daughters, perhaps the only females with which he still stands some chance - feel altogether worked-over by smaller-screen procedurals.
There are good scenes, performances and moments, but its conspicuous toughness, its headstrong determination to stir shit up, obfuscates more than it clarifies or elucidates: it's an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to like - or, indeed, to recommend unreservedly. As Brown's late-film descent into another of the recent cinema's more than faintly comical, red-lit sex clubs - lesbians! Whips! Thick-ass steaks! After Irreversible and Shame, these places are popping up like Starbucks, catering to the needs of any anti-hero seeking an accessible neighborhood nadir - illustrates rather too well, sometimes it's genuinely hard to ascertain whether a film is peering into the murk, or if it's just getting murky itself.
Rampart opens in selected cinemas from today.