Harsh Times Review
By Joe Lozito
Everyone loves a good psychopath. On screen, that is. And actors love playing them. Edward Norton was frighteningly hypnotic in "American History X"
and Ryan Gosling was equally riveting in "The Believer". Leading that pack is Christian Bale, who seems to enjoy these roles more than most, injecting a piece of his "American Psycho"
persona into almost every film from "Batman Begins"
to "The Prestige"
. In the innocuously-titled "Harsh Times", Mr. Bale is given another chance to bust out, and he does so with relish. But as with "American Psycho", the film doesn't live up to his performance.
Within minutes of meeting Mr. Bale's Jim Davis, he has cracked open a beer behind the wheel of his car and thrown the empty bottle at a nearby motorist who, it would seem, looked at him the wrong way. Regardless, it's clear this guy's not stable. An ex-Army Ranger, Jim is a ticking time bomb of PTSD, which director David Ayer characterizes by jump-cutty flashbacks which combine reality with his memories of the Gulf War. Jim's friends, particularly his weak-willed childhood pal Mike (Freddy Rodríguez), do little to help Jim except to point out that he need to "calm down, dude."
Following a trajectory reminiscent of "Taxi Driver", "Harsh Times" sets Jim up for a typically violent fall. Jim has a doting girlfriend in Mexico who he dreams of importing and with whom he wants to settle down. But first he needs to become an LAPD officer. As you'd expect, that's not in the cards for Jim.
The film has some intriguing ideas about war vets finding a place in society, but aside from those few loud, edit-happy flashback sequences, Mr. Ayer's script never gets into Jim's head. The film doesn't make Jim a victim but rather his own worst enemy. It's only Mr. Bale's fearlessly visceral performance that propels the film. The few other characters in the film are merely caught in his orbit. Mr Rodríguez can't come close to matching Mr. Bale's presence or intensity, and his relationship with the gorgeous Sylvia (Eva Longoria) only further out-classes him. Ms. Longoria, for her part, shows some real depth here and offers a glimpse of a potential career post-"Desperate Housewives".
"Harsh Times" is set firmly in the streets of South Central Los Angeles and the script is rife with the familiar parlance of the streets. There are a lot of "homeys", bros" and of course many, many "dudes" to be heard here. The film is also overflowing with macho bluster (do guys really shout "we're men
!" this much?) and cultural stereotyping, with Mexicans either living in squalor or touting guns and selling drugs. Whites, of course, are The Man. Not that there's anything wrong with these caricatures if the film does something new with them like, say, "Crash"
did. But "Harsh Times", written before Mr. Ayer's far-superior "Training Day", feels like we've seen it before. With the exception of Mr. Bale's performance, "Times" runs out.