Police officers have a tough job. They’re hated by criminals, for obvious reasons, but they’re also often disliked by the general law-abiding public because at least the perception is that they abuse the power they’ve been given. Certainly the majority of them are better than planting evidence or beating someone mercilessly, but if you’ve ever seen a police car turn on its lights and siren just to blow through a red light, or breaking the speed limit in a non-emergency situation, or worse yet driving below the speed limit and impeding the flow of traffic because people are afraid to pass them, then you’ve probably at least been frustrated by this. And when a truly corrupt cop is depicted, like in Rampart, it’s not hard to buy the story.

Officer David Brown (played by Woody Harrelson) is a real piece of work. He has two daughters who are both sisters and first cousins because their mothers are sisters. He has a drinking problem, an eating disorder, and may be a sex addict. He’s also a police officer who doesn’t feel bound by the law himself, but has no problem taking down bad guys, and often uses what he knows to blackmail them into giving him stuff or to give him information about other criminal activities that may be going down. He earned the nickname “date rape” when he allegedly killed an alleged serial rapist 15 years ago, but since he studied law before becoming a police officer, he’s able to make the legal system work for him and he always manages to stay out of trouble.

It’s 1999 in Los Angeles, and the city has been rocked by the Rodney King beatings. The district attorney’s office is out for blood, and it seems that someone in the police department thinks that David will make a good scapegoat. While he’s out on patrol one day, his car is T-boned at an intersection, and when he goes to check on the other driver, he’s knocked down by the car’s door when the driver starts to flee the scene. David gives chase and catches him easily, and then begins beating him with his baton. There just happens to be a camera pointed in his direction, and the footage makes the evening news.

The film invests a lot of effort into making David an absolutely abhorrent and unlikeable person, and every turn seems to make him just a little bit more despicable. However, it’s also surprisingly easy to sympathize with him at the same time because he’s a bad guy, but he’s mostly bad to other bad guys. His family (including the sisters that were his former wives, played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, and especially their daughters played by an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky) are the real victims in all of this because they don’t get the kind of attention they want, but they have to deal with the mess that is his life. His youngest daughter has been sheltered from this all her life, but even she is starting to see the truth about him.

There is a surprising amount of star power in the film. In addition to those already mentioned, Rampart features Sigourney Weaver (as a lawyer for the police department), Steve Buscemi (as a district attorney), Robin Wright (as a lawyer in the DA’s office and occasional sex partner for David), Ned Beatty (as a former cop who serves as a confidant for David), and Ice Cube (as an investigator for the district attorney). There are also other faces you’ll recognize even if the names aren’t familiar. It’s a surprising cast for a second-time director (Owen Moverman, whose only other film is The Messenger, which also starred Harrelson), but he pulls it off well.

I think that some people will be put off by the overall tone of the film, and others will be disappointed with its ending. It’s not as satisfying as I would have liked, but with the events that led up to it, it’s hard to see how it could have ended in any other way.