After serving a brutal tour in Afghanistan, ex-Army Ranger Jim Davis (Christian Bale) has returned to his South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles. He is determined to begin a career in law enforcement and has applied to join the LAPD. While still waiting to get word on whether and when he will start training, he spends his day with his unemployed best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), driving around town and stirring up trouble when they are supposed to be job-looking. Mike wants to do the right thing for his caring girlfriend (Eva Longoria) but he is all too easily swayed by his charismatic buddy. It doesn’t take long for Mike to realize that Jim isn’t the same, mellow friend he used to know.
Having written Training Day, it is no surprise that director David Ayer’s first feature film bears some resemblance with it. However, Harsh Times is much more of a character study of a seriously disturbed man who is on the verge of losing his humanity and the danger he poses to the people around him. Due to his involvement in combat duty, Jim did unspeakable things and now suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and drug addiction. The psychological toll is such that he isn’t the same person he used to be. This all become apparent when Jim is rejected by the LAPD and he suddenly goes into a mad fury in the middle of an intersection. From that point on, we know he is a timebomb who is inevitably descending into a frenzied madness that will result in tragic consequences.
Despite all the anger and testosterone apparent in the script, there is a lot more than meets the eyes. Most notably, there is quite a lot of dark humor peppered throughout the movie and a certain sense of inevitable doom as our two characters get further in trouble. There is also an underlying condemnation of the way the military creates killing machines only to release them back in the civilian world, expecting them to readjust. There is some issues with the movie, most notably unsubtle dialogue as well as pacing issues that cause the movie to wander aimlessly for the first half hour. Yet, one has to admire Ayer for sticking to his vision of how his movie should be.
The main reason to watch Harsh Times is for Christian Bale’s mesmerizing performance. Jim is an unstable, unlikable character yet it is impossible to take your eyes off him. While he shares about as much screen time as his sidekick Freddie Rodriguez who actually is the main character, there is no doubt that Bale completely blows him out of the screen with an intensely edgy, volatile and nearly unpredictable turn. He adds a lot of depth to his character simply by showing us flashes of who Jim used to be before he went to Afghanistan. The actor has always been incredibly committed to his roles and this isn’t an exception as he goes to some very dark places here.
“You’re crazy and you’re dangerous and my biggest nightmare is you with a fucking badge!”
Freddie Rodriguez has the difficult role of playing off Bale’s flashy portrayal and he does a commendable job of demonstrating why his character is even hanging out with a bad apple like Jim. Mike is a bit of a childish slacker but he realizes that he has to mature, which makes him more and more sympathetic as the movie unfolds. In a supporting turn, Eva Longoria is quite good as Mike’s girlfriend, a lawyer who has obviously outgrown him. J.K. Simmons plays a Homeland Security recruiter who knows all too well a near-psychotic individual like Jim would be a perfect special agent for some shock and awe operations. Additionally, the likable Terry Crews appears in a funny cameo that provides the movie with some much needed comic relief.
Dark and intense, Harsh Times is worth watching if only for an absolutely fascinating performance from Christian Bale.
Notes: Rated R for strong violence, language and drug use, 116 minutes.
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