Harsh Times


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Harsh Times

If you think of David Ayer as the (co-)writer-for-hire on revisionist sub thriller U-571, dodgy TV remake SWAT and, ahem, The Fast And The Furious (whose revved-up set-pieces barely required a script), then your expectations of his directorial debut Harsh Times will probably be sufficiently low for this gritty urban morality tale to surprise and even impress you. Remember, though, that Ayer also single-handedly wrote Antoine Fuqua's excellent Training Day (2001), and suddenly both the qualities and flaws of Harsh Times begin to come into sharper focus.

Gulf War veteran Jim Davis (Christian Bale) dreams of getting a job in law enforcement and settling down with his Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) - but in the meantime he just hangs out with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), drinking, getting high and looking for trouble on the streets, while trying to keep Mike's long-time girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) convinced that her man is spending the days job-seeking in earnest. Already mentally scarred by his wartime experiences, Jim starts coming apart at the seams when an unorthodox job offer arrives unexpectedly from the Department of Homeland Security, forcing him to make some uncomfortable choices about his future. On yet another of their masculine rites of passage, with Jim becoming ever more violent and unpredictable, Mike must decide just how far he is willing to follow his friend's path to self-destruction.

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Though made on the back of Training Day's success, Harsh Times was written some time before it, and feels like a dry run for ideas that Ayer only really managed to perfect in his screenplay for Fuqua's film. Both are edgy buddy pics set on the mean streets of South Central LA - where Ayer himself grew up - both feature a dangerous alpha male leading a more innocent partner astray, and both are tense, darkly funny explorations of machismo and criminality. Training Day, however, with its near-Aristotelian unity of time and place, hard-driven narrative, and perfectly balanced dynamic of its main characters, was an altogether leaner, tauter affair, whereas Harsh Times meanders from one episode to the next with far less sense of overall direction, is overbusy in its plotting to a degree that tends to undercut the film's attempts at realism, and suffers from irksomely repetitive dialogue (lots of male-bonding 'dawgs', 'dudes' and 'beeyatches').

Christian Bale puts in a typically intense performance as timebomb Jim, seeming in the two opening scenes to be playing two entirely different characters, and then maintaining this split between vulnerable tenderness and violent psychosis for the rest of the film. One moment he is seeking employment with the LAPD, the next he is trying to sell a stolen gun to gang members; one minute he is signing up for covert anti-narcotics operations in Colombia, shortly afterwards he is dealing bagloads of cannabis that he has personally smuggled from down south; now he is telling his girlfriend he wants to be with her forever, soon he is pointing a gun to her throat. He is truly the West Coast's answer to Travis Bickle, but unfortunately all the concentration on his character detracts from that of his misguided friend. Freddy (Six Feet Under) Rodriguez is a fine actor, but that is not enough to prevent his underwritten Mike from seeming too much of a pushover to be interesting - and certainly he fails to hold the same fascination as his more nuanced counterpart (played by Ethan Hawke) in Training Day.

As a drama of missed opportunities, however, few come bleaker than Harsh Times. Time and again Jim and Mike shirk their responsibilities, only to have jobs that they hardly deserve fall into their laps; or else get themselves into sticky predicaments, only to be miraculously delivered. They seem, by any standards, to lead charmed lives, getting not just second but often third and even fourth chances at everything that they do. Yet instead of learning the error of their ways, they keep leaping right back into the same old puerile pranks and petty crimes, determined to remain their own worst enemies, until eventually, at least for one of them, the luck finally runs out, while the other is forced to see the true value of what life has been offering.

All this is set against a background where half the duo's old friends from the 'hood have now got themselves into stable jobs or degree courses, while the other half are still gangbanging, in prison or else stone-cold dead. These are the choices that Jim and Mike must also face, but they seem doomed to repeat all their old mistakes, so their tragedy is rooted as much in misdirected masculinity and woeful stupidity as in past trauma and a violent environment.

Harsh Times is unable to keep its different preoccupations together in a coherent whole. Alongside the drama of Jim and Mike's personal dilemmas there is also a voguishly cynical portrayal of US foreign policy, but the two seem largely unrelated, unless perhaps we are meant to regard the streets of South Central as a metaphor for the dangerous territories abroad into which America keeps venturing when it might do better to stay home and straighten up its own act. Well, perhaps - but it seems more probable that in the end, just like its protagonist, Harsh Times is fatally flawed, but in a manner that still remains compelling to watch.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A war veteran loses his mind in South Central LA.
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Read more Harsh Times reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****

Director: David Ayer

Writer: David Ayer

Starring: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Tammy Trull, Adriana Millan

Year: 2005

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: USA


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