I wouldn't quite say that the title of this Oren Moverman film, the follow-up to his highly successful The Messenger from 2009, is misleading, but the film is not really about the Rampart scandal of the 1990s; it is about a fictious dirty cop who personifies everything that was wrong about LAPD's anti-gang Rampart Division at the time: He is corrupt, misanthropic, selfish and amoral. Somewhat surprisingly though, Rampart does not offer much in the way of social criticism or scrutiny of a corrupt system, which one could expect. Rather it is a character study of a corrupt man in a downward spiral.
And at that, Rampart succeeds unconditionally. Woody Harrelson gives another intensely probing performance of a man who is an inherently selfish survivalist. He roams the streets of LA as if they were a jungle, full of traps and predators he must keep at bay. And he treats his vocation as his means to secure survival; it's kill or be killed. Harrelson's Dave Brown has no sense of moral, he operates solely instinctively. What makes the portrait so effective and harrowing is his obvious intelligence. He is eloquent and rationalizing, ensuring his true face remains hidden for most everyone he encounters for the longest time - including his own family.
What Rampart does not discuss is why Dave Brown is what he is. The film is so unsuggestive and self-defining that borders on the ineffecitve. Brown is clearly a remnant of the Rampart Division, but is he a product of it, or is he a product of society? Both explanations would seem logical, and should have been discussed more fully, but Moverman's angle is more individualistic, focusing on Brown as a man with seemingly intrinsic character flaws. This may make the film less bold, even less relevant, but it doesn't take anything away from the character study and Harrelson's powerful performance. The strong cast around him and the cleverly constructed and told disintegration of a cop's reputation and stature makes Rampart a riveting experience.