Woody Harrelson gives a performance so searing you swear you’d be burned if you dared touch the screen.

Many journalists credit “All the President’s Men” as their gateway drug into an over caffeinated world of late nights, surly bosses and shameless urges to see your byline in print. Cops, I contend, draw the same inspiration from “Dirty Harry,” a flick about a rule-breaking peace officer using any means necessary to rid the streets of violent scum.

The visceral thrills culled from Clint Eastwood’s eviscerating performance make it easy to understand his status as a Magnum-packing muse. But, thankfully, most police officers realize  the character is pure Hollywood, a highly romanticized throwback to an Old West edict about justice served best at the end of a gun. There are a few, however, who take the “dirty” a bit too literally and evolve into frightening train wrecks like Dave Brown, the active volcano spewing arrogance and corruption across the urban landscapes of Oren Moverman’s “Rampart.” He’s played by Woody Harrelson in a performance so searing you swear you’d be burned if you dared touch the screen. Nicknamed “Date Rape” by his fellow L.A. cops for brazenly using a sexual assault suspect for target practice, Dave is the last of a dying breed of macho marshals that shoot first and ask questions later. And as a member of L.A. infamous Rampart division, a name that became synonymous with venality and brutality in the late 1990s, Dave is viewed as the No. 1 public enemy by his politically conscious superiors, who want him to either immediately cleanup his act or resign.

Dave, stubborn goat that he is, refuses to do either, setting himself up for a colossal fall after he’s caught on tape in a Rodney King-type incident involving a minority suspect. A similar fate awaits him at home, where he’s become persona non grata with his two ex-wives, sisters played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, and his rebellious daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who has taken to mockingly calling her daddy Date Rape Dave. His only ally, it seems is his younger daughter, Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), who still idolizes the jerk even though he’s rarely around and often drunk. She’s also a bit confused, asking her father if she is an inbred due to the fact that she and Helen are cousins as well as half-sisters.

Yes, the family dynamics are a bit much, especially when we’re asked to believe that Dave still lives in the same house with his exes. But  that’s to be expected when Moverman’s collaborator is pulp novelist James Ellroy, who infuses “Rampart” with the same over-the-top antics he brought to “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia.” He and Moverman, who burst upon the scene three years ago with his hauntingly realistic “The Messenger” (for which Harrelson received an Oscar nomination), seem an odd pairing on paper, but it’s even odder on screen. Their opposing styles are constantly at war with each other, making it impossible to fully invest yourself in Dave’s life or predicaments. At times, it almost seems like a joke.

It’s a major flaw, but Harrelson’s performance is so riveting you’re more than willing to look past it and bask in the joy of watching an actor let it all hang out, while refusing to pander to his audience for affection. Harrelson practically begs us to despise Dave and you do. But Harrelson also is smart enough to let us see through the veneer and into the troubled soul of a man who wants to be loved and adored, but is too stupid to realize that his actions at work and in his personal life are having the completely opposite effect.

The only thing thinner than Dave’s gaunt, almost anorexic, body is the plot, which largely exists as a means to string together Dave’s troubled relationships with his family, his bosses and mounting sexual conquests, including Robin Wright’s thrill-seeking defense attorney, who hates Dave almost as much as she craves him.

The performances, which also include brief but memorable contributions from Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Harrelson’s “Messenger” costar, Ben Foster, are universally outstanding, especially the relatively unknown Larson, whose scenes with Harrelson are as tense as they are heartbreaking, as father and daughter flail at a connection they long to make but are too bullheaded to achieve.

Still, “Rampart” is not for everyone. It’s frantic, but deliberately paced. It also offers little in the way of compassion for its array of flawed characters. But if you love great acting and gritty, uncompromising bleakness, “Rampart” is undeniably arresting material.

RAMPART (R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence.) Cast includes Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Brie Larson, Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube. Co-written and directed by Oren Moverman. 3 stars out of 4.