The first thing you notice about Woody Harrelson in Rampart is how thin he is: His skin is taut over his bullet head and bulging temples, as if a skeleton decided to dress for Halloween as Woody Harrelson. The second thing you notice is his cigarette, cantilevered from his lips in a precarious balance as he pulls practiced drags of poison. For the first two minutes of the movie, a series of close-up shots inside a car, Harrelson holds that coffin nail in place without putting a finger to his mouth. These twin traits suggest a man both perpetually burning and ready to be extinguished. Los Angeles Police Officer "Date Rape" Dave Brown is a soldier—and old soldiers never die, they just flame out.

"Date Rape" is not a nickname most men would suffer, but Dave has been slyly feeding off it for years. The story goes that Dave gunned down a serial rapist, and in the LAPD's scandal-plagued Rampart division in the '90s, this is what passes for good publicity. It is also the nicest thing about Dave. A brief list of his other qualities, as enumerated by his teenage daughter: "You're a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly—though maybe you just don't like yourself." That last bit is unfair. Dave adores himself. Just listen to his reasons for fighting a misconduct charge after beating a perp half to death on camera. "Because I'm a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker, and I want to explicate the LAPD's somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache, regardless of my alleged transgressions," he recites to his lawyers, grinning at his verbal whirligigs. "In other words, I have nowhere else to go."

This eloquence—the music of brutality, the soft bullying of the outnumbered bigot—marks Dave, and the whole of Rampart, as a James Ellroy joint. The self-regarding master of sunbaked pulp novels, Ellroy has been adapted to the screen before (most satisfyingly in L.A. Confidential). But with Rampart, director Oren Moverman has made the first movie based on a screenplay Ellroy wrote. (If the dialogue weren't clue enough, Dave's thuggishly chivalrous need to save and control women is another authorial hallmark.) Watching Rampart, it occurred to me that somebody needs to pair Ellroy with Aaron Sorkin for a project: They are equals, otherwise peerless, in silver-tongued soapboxing for characters of their own political persuasions. But Ellroy is far more rare—like some skewed Lorax, he speaks for the fascists. In Ellroy's writing and Harrelson's performance, you can detect a wary affection for Dave, like that of a herpetologist watching over a favorite snake. 

Rampart doesn't register as any recognizable procedural, but then Dave isn't following any defensible protocol. Moverman (he wrote the formidable scripts for Jesus' Son and I'm Not There, then directed Harrelson to an Oscar nomination in The Messenger) has taken Ellroy's script and frayed it. The camera is always darting and the editing moves contrary to the plot, as if trying to floor the gas pedal out of a bad neighborhood. (There's barely enough time to savor a cast—including Robin Wright, Ice Cube and Ned Beatty—that's almost distractingly good.) As Dave disintegrates within pills and booze, any threads of larger conspiracy dissolve along with him. But themes emerge. There's no question Dave is guilty—of the beating, of the fabled murder, of much worse—but is he also gallant? In other words, will he get to define the terms of his own extinction?

The movie gives him nowhere to run. Rampart remains excellent through its final frames, and Moverman earns credit for fully confronting his antihero. But like much of the director's work, this movie feels overdetermined, too eager to define what it means. It's as if Moverman is frightened by how powerful a ghoul he, Harrelson and Ellroy have connived to summon, and feels he must destroy him. There's no need. Dave is managing that just fine by himself. 

Critic’s Score: 86

SEE IT: Rampart is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.