by David Cornelius
“Harsh Times” could have been little more than a typical inner city gang-banger drama. Yet it strives for much, much more. Here is a film that is brooding, angry, intense. It bursts with the darkest pessimism. It is the tale of macho rage at its most unchecked, and it dares to ask, how did its characters get here?Christian Bale plays Jim Davis, a former Army Ranger trained to be a cold, mindless killing machine. He is now home, the war far behind him, and he’s hoping a job with the LAPD will help him bring his Mexican fiancée (Tammy Trull) to the States. His best pal Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez) is struggling to find a job of his own, due to the nagging of his lawyer wife (Eva Longoria).
"Not your average homeboy picture."
Jim is what you would call a bad influence - on a day intended for Mike to pass out resumés and for Jim to finalize his LAPD testing, Jim insists on getting drunk, getting stoned, getting laid, and generally getting into trouble. When Jim learns he’s been deemed ineligible for the police force, his rage lets loose, and the day becomes one long frustration-venting cruise. Mike’s on probation, hoping to go straight, yet here’s Jim, stumbling into his life again, convincing him to help him sell the stolen guns they landed.
The film is written by David Ayers, who previously penned “Training Day,” “SWAT,” and “Dark Blue” (as well as the embarrassment that is “The Fast and the Furious”); here, he makes his directorial debut as well, pumping the same macho fury into his camerawork that he has injected into his scripts for years. The easiest comparisons go to “Training Day:” two guys roaming the streets by car, one slowly but surely corrupting the other with his moral darkness, unchecked temper, and a seeming invincibility. “Harsh Times” is, if possible, even more rambling and plotless than that Denzel Washington flick, content instead with being merely a case study in the life of a man crumbling under his own ferocity.
In Jim’s case, this violence was programmed into him by the Armed Forces, who created a perfect killing machine, then tossed him aside, expecting him to be able to find some sense of normalcy in the civilian world. Wisely, Ayer does not discuss any of this up front. Instead, he asks the audience to work out the causes of Jim’s violent behavior on their own, aided only by a handful of dream-flashbacks and the clear understanding that Jim is, in more than one character’s words, “fucked up.” “Harsh Times” is the story of a military leftover, stuck in the real world with nothing to do but unleash the same destructive tendencies that made him a wartime hero.
It’s curious, then, to watch the only viable offer made to Jim come from the Department of Homeland Security, who want him to return to the same sort of work he does so well. Here, they do not care what sort of illegal behavior fills his spare time - unlike the LAPD, they’re willing to overlook such things - as long as he’s able to get the job done.
As such, Ayer’s film grows beyond the simplicities of the South Central gang genre its look and characters suggest. “Harsh Times” is smart enough to make itself a condemnation of the sort of people the Armed Forces create, men with confused morals, unable to adjust. (This is not to say all former soldiers are unable to adjust. But it does raise the question: does the government care at all about such adjustment problems?)
As the troubled, demented Jim, Bale delivers the same psycho frenzy that he pulled off in “American Psycho” and even “Batman Returns.” Here’s a guy who knows how to melt down on screen and demand we care. Rodriguez, meanwhile, elegantly handles an even more complex role, as the poor soul torn between a better life and the dangers presented by his friend.The film’s seemingly aimless, laid-back approach to the story causes a few problems - namely, the film’s about a half hour longer than it needs to be, and the apparent lack of direction leads the viewer to drift away from time to time - but the lead performances are electric and keep up watching. This is a tale of escalating madness from which its characters are unable to escape, and while it carries all the signs of your hackneyed drugs-and-guns picture, there’s a whole lot more going on under the surface. This is the sort of intelligent, daring work the genre truly needs.
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originally posted: 11/09/06 21:24:17