Millennium Films

The scary thing is that, on some level, Dave Brown is a good cop. In terms of getting bad guys off the street, serving and protecting the citizens of Los Angeles and all that, his numbers are probably pretty good.

It's the whole following the law thing he seems to have so much trouble with.

In the searing drama "Rampart," Woody Harrelson gives a raw, menacing performance as Brown, a corrupt Los Angeles cop trying to stay on the job and out of prison. With his bullet head, lean physique and incongruously charming smile, Dave (nicknamed "Date-Rape Dave" for allegedly executing a serial rapist years ago) is never more fearsome than when he's calm.

The year is 1999, and the Los Angeles Police Department is being battered by the real-life "Rampart" police brutality scandal. For a department looking for scapegoats, Dave is an easy catch, and when he's caught on tape brutally beating a motorist after a traffic accident, Dave's days seem to be numbered.

"Rampart" reteams Harrelson with "The Messenger" writer-director Oren Moverman, who likes to film the action through obstructions – plants, window reflections – as if we're watching surveillance tapes ourselves. He also bathes the film in angry reds and oranges to suggest the tension bearing down on the film; Harrelson spends much of the film looking like he's under a heat lamp.

Moverman co-wrote the screenplay with acclaimed novelist James Ellroy ("L.A. Confidential"), although "Rampart" is much more of a character study than one of Ellroy's usual suspense thriller. Dave thinks that there are forces conspiring against him, including his superior (Sigourney Weaver), an old friend (Ned Beatty) and the district attorney (Steve Buscemi), but we're never sure if this is perception or paranoia. (By the way, when Steve Buscemi is playing a district attorney, you know you're in a moral quagmire). The strong cast also includes Robin Wright, Anne Heche, and Ice Cube as a dogged internal affairs detective.

But it's Harrelson's show, and he seems to revel in playing such a dark character as Dave, who nearly wins our sympathies despite compounding his sins with further misdeeds in a desperate attempt to save himself. To the end, he thinks of himself as a police officer above all, a protector of society. Only, eventually, he loses everyone he wants to protect.