Anyone who followed the TV series The Shield will be familiar with the basic premise of Rampart, written by crime novelist James Elroy and directed by Oren Moverman, based on a real-life corruption scandal that shattered the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1990s when a squad of police officers assigned to investigate gangs became gangsters themselves. Moverman’s film doesn’t even attempt to tell that story (which took The Shield seven seasons to unravel), but employs the mood of distrust and disgrace as a backdrop for a sun-kissed noir, familiar yet jarringly strange.

Renegade Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a racist, violent scofflaw in a crisp blue uniform who enforces what he calls a “military occupation” on the multicultural streets of East LA. His home life is equally idiosyncratic. Dave lives in bohemian comfort in two neighbouring suburban houses: one occupied by his estranged wife (Anne Heche) and the other by his ex-wife (Cynthia Nixon), who happens to be his wife’s sister, and their two daughters.

Cruising the streets in his shiny patrol car, smoking endless cigarettes and swigging occasionally from a bottle of whiskey, Dave imagines himself as a kind of Wild West sheriff, imposing harsh order on the chaos of the city, when in reality he is a rabid dog who has been let off the leash. When he is filmed by a passerby beating a Hispanic man half to death, Dave is hauled before the authorities (represented by cameos from Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi) where he brazenly claims to have been acting in self-defence.

It’s not Dave’s first time to get into trouble and he knows the disciplinary procedures intimately, cleverly negotiating his way through the cracks until he glimpses an escape route. Constantly popping the pills he extorts from a local chemist, Dave holds hushed summits with a retired veteran cop (Ned Beatty), who tips him on ways to steal money. He starts an affair with a lawyer (Robin Wright), even though she has been sent to bring him to justice and stages a series of angry confrontations with a fellow policeman (Ice Cube) who believes he has gathered enough evidence to finally throw Dave off the force.

Ellroy and Moverman are more concerned with crafting a character than negotiating their way through a plot, sometimes to the detriment of the film. The story leaps from moment to moment, arranging Dave’s misdeeds in an untidy pile, primarily so we can get a sense of how power wielded by the unworthy can be so dangerous. Moverman directs the film as if he had shot bits and sequences without any conception of his final structure, content to trail Harrelson as he interacts, briefly, with a gathered cast of shadowy secondary players. None of them stick around long enough to make much of an impression, as they all fall victim to Moverman’s scattershot style. The pieces could be shuffled around in any order without making much difference to the storyline. A scene with Harrelson, Weaver and Buscemi is ruined by the director’s awkward camera movement, the tension evaporating as the viewer is distracted, while later, the introduction of Ice Cube’s righteous policeman’s policeman is sidelined into a short series of dead ends.

Despite the film’s flaws, Harrelson gives a performance of extraordinary power as the dirty cop at the centre of an unravelling system, the most compelling anti-hero cop since Denzel Washington in Training Day. He seems to thrive among the snatches and snippets of story, crafting a character whose worldview was formed by his father, a policeman in the LA of the 1950s, who taught him to shoot first and avoid questions later. With his glinting sunglasses and vulpine smile, Harrelson brings both a nervy intensity and cocky self-confidence to his unsentimental performance. Dave is an unrepentant monster and a dark-hearted villain but he is only as warped and corrupt as the society that allows him to prosper.

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