Rampart: Woody Harrelson Shines as L.A.’s Dirtiest Cop

In this followup to The Messenger, the star brings power and complexity to another of James Ellroy's wily, corrupt boys in blue

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Millennium Entertainment / courtesy Everett Collection

Based on their family histories, Woody Harrelson and James Ellroy were careening race-cars destined to collide. Harrelson’s father Charles was convicted of the 1979 murder of a federal judge on a contract from a drug dealer. Occasionally boasting that he killed John F. Kennedy, Charles died in a supermax prison cell in Colorado four years ago. Ellroy’s mother Jean was found strangled and dumped by a roadside in 1958. Her son, 10 at the time, believed the crime went unsolved because of police apathy in investigating it. That haunting suspicion propelled him into writing novels about cops and killers, including L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid (which climaxes in the Kennedy assassination), and a 1996 book, My Dark Places, that attempted to find the identity of his mother’s murderer.

So Harrelson’s starring role as a wayward cop in Oren Moverman’s Rampart, co-written by Ellroy from his story, feels like Kismet. The LAPD detective played by Harrelson in this unsatisfying but fascinating character study goes by the moniker Dave “Date Rape” Brown, because years ago he killed a man suspected of being a sexual predator. A dinosaur among the city’s blue boys, Dave gets dewy reminiscing about the good old days: the 1970s, when tough white guys imposed order on the darker classes. “This used to be a glorious soldiers’ department,” he tells a young female cop of mixed-race background, adding accusingly, “And now it’s — you.” A cool dude who enjoys flipping two cigarettes in the air and catching them in his mouth, Dave could be the flip side of Keanu Reeves’ cop in the 2008 Street Kings, another Ellroy hymn to “L.A.’s deadliest,” but marginally sunnier and more Hollywoodized.

(READ: Richard Corliss in muted praise of the Ellroy movie Street Kings)

“Bear in mind that I am not a racist,” Dave says. “I hate all people equally.” But this is 1999, when a scandal in the Rampart precinct exposed the venality and brutality of many policemen against the neighborhood’s predominantly Hispanic citizens. (Ellroy’s story weaves Dave’s fiction into the fabric of the real-life scandal.) When Dave kicks and clubs a man whose car slammed into his, and his outburst is videotaped and aired on TV, he’s fingered to take a fall. Of course Dave won’t be pushed, much less jump. Beyond being mulish, he’s as eloquent in legal jargon as he is in street talk. Someone high up will have to be as crafty and amoral as he is.

(SEE: James Ellroy answered TIME’s 10 Questions)

Director Oren Moverman has assembled a plush supporting cast: Steve Buscemi as the D.A., Sigourney Weaver (on the mark in her few scenes) as an LAPD lawyer, Ice Cube as an Internal Affairs investigator and Ned Beatty as a tired, retired cop who tells Dave that if he wants to avoid trouble, “You could just stop beating people up.” Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche play Dave’s sister-wives, not in the Mormon sense but just as complicated: he married one woman, then her sister, has a daughter by each and is divorced from both but lives on their sofa. Robin Wright shines a weary luster on Linda, a mysterious figure Dave meets on one of his night-crawls. “You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he tells her. “In this bar.” He’s also wary of Linda’s instant attraction to him: “You have a courtroom suit and litigator eyes.” (In fact she’s a D.A.) That’s an example of Dave’s gift for quickly appraising people’s motives — part of what makes him such a good bad cop.

(FIND OUT: How many crime films made the All TIME 100 Movies list? About 20.)

Two years ago, Moverman directed Harrelson to an Oscar nomination in The Messenger. There, the actor was relatively benign as an Army Captain whose mission is to inform next-of-kin of soldiers’ deaths. Essentially a series of arias by guests artists (Steve Buscemi, Samantha Morton) miming paroxysms of instant grief, The Messenger got whatever authenticity it could muster from Harrelson, who invested his grizzled-veteran soldier with black humor and a world of pain. The star’s demons run magnificently wild in Rampart, and Moverman has already considered extending his alliance with Harrelson into a trilogy. “We’ve done two movies with Woody in uniform, as a soldier and a police officer,” the director told the Los Angeles Times. “So I guess now he has to play a postal worker.”

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Buddy Cop Movies)

In nearly three decades on TV and in the movies, Harrelson has proved himself equally plausible as either the friendly rural mailman or the letter-sorter who goes postal. After eight seasons as easy-going Woody Boyd on Cheers, he graduated to starring roles in features by escorting Demi Moore into her Indecent Proposal with Robert Redford. He lent his cagey likability to the sports comedies White Men Can’t Jump and Kingpin, then exploded like a frag bomb as the media-savvy psycho in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (from a script by Quentin Tarantino). He earned his first Oscar nomination playing a porn king fighting for the First Amendment in The People vs. Larry Flynt. As Flynt, or the TV news star in Welcome to Sarajevo, or the Twinkies-addicted survivor of Zombieland — for that matter, as the bounty hunter who meets his match and his maker when Javier Bardem shows up in No Country for Old Men — Harrelson put a swagger into every step. With a portfolio of strong showings in some pretty fine movies, the actor has carved out a stark and engaging character: the wild American cowboy riding into the present on a stallion of lunatic machismo.

(READ: Why Zombieland was the coolest creature feature of 2009)

Moverman knows what a pearl he’s got. In a movie that is as grimy visually as it is gritty in its narrative, the camera spends lots of time studying the star’s craggy profile while Dave prowl-cars through the L.A. night. That’s one of the ways that Rampart declares itself an indie film rather than a mainstream movie. (Another way: Even though it’s a crime thriller, you don’t know the movie’s over until the end credits begin.) Granted, long takes of the leading man’s face are often a sign of directorial indulgence or vacuity. But Harrelson always rewards watching; he’s no less potent at rest than when he detonates in calculated rage.

So deep is the actor’s commitment to his character that, even as viewers move back to shield themselves from the expected immolation, they lean into the screen, rooting for Dave. For he is not just the dirty cop who needs a public cleaning; he is the lone rider — or wolf or ranger — tilting against a system much more powerful than he and, in its way, no less corrupt. That’s the kind of villainous hero that both Harrelson and Ellroy love to bring to squirmy life.