"This used to be a glorious soldiers' department," sighs LAPD veteran Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), staring down a timid female trainee. "Now it's ... you." The lamentation sounds like faint sexism of the good-ol'-boy variety, but it serves as the crux of Oren Moverman's on-the-nose indie, which spies on a shattered, embarrassing era through the dejected eyes of the last man to accept that it's over.
Set in 1999 Los Angeles during the aftermath of the enormous blowup that implicated dozens of anti-gang police for criminal extracurriculars, Rampart improperly sells its subject as "the most corrupt cop you've ever seen on screen," but most of Brown's insidious moves have already taken place before the first shot, referenced in tip-toeing dialogue written by Moverman and crime-scribe legend James Ellroy.
In his day, Brown was one of those "glorious soldiers," so poisoned with greed and bigotry that no law could keep him from acting on his contorted sense of justice. Now, in the media-controlled post-scandal era, Brown's caught-on-tape beatdown of a suspect is treated not as simple "police work," as D.A. Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi) calls it, but as an opportunity for the department to purge itself of a soiled-shirt past. Laying in wait for a trial date, Brown, a smartass aspiring attorney and Vietnam veteran with two kids by two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), stays in his blues, unveiling more of his transgressions via face-to-faces with his retired mentor (Ned Beatty) and shifty new bed buddy (Robin Wright).
Fusing nihilistic glee with a creeping sense of regret, the part is a juicy steak for Harrelson, a much better actor than he’s given credit for. But that's all Rampart is. The rest of the cast, from his petulant teen daughter (Brie Larson) to the dogged internal-affairs officer shadowing him (Ice Cube), is treated as a surface to provide Brown with enough ricochet to reach the next level of his descent. Moverman's raw, pure approach to perspective, so pronounced in The Messenger, is present, but the trappings are too awkwardly singular to let it ride.