Monday, November 13, 2006

Harsh Times

HARSH TIMES (David Ayer, 2005)

After serving six years as an Army Ranger, Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is wound tighter than a coil. He has nightmares about the efficient, brutal killing he did under order in the military, but his cocksure demeanor gives no indication of his inner demons.

HARSH TIMES finds the South Central Los Angeles resident back in civilian life. Jim and his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez) are in need of work. Jim wants to get a job with the LAPD or feds so he can marry his longtime Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) and bring her to the States. Mike needs employment so his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) will get off his case. Regardless, their job searches usually lead them to the bottom of some 40s, scoring weed, and trying to fence a brand new Luger pistol.

One day their prospects improve. The Department of Homeland Security expresses interest in Jim despite concerns about his performance on psychological tests. Mike runs into an old buddy in a position to hire him. All this time, though, the likelihood of Jim snapping gets greater.

Built from a basic shot-reverse shot template, HARSH TIMES puts its emphasis on performance. In a role that would have gone to Robert De Niro a couple decades ago, Bale brings the same intensity he's given to brooding or troubled characters in BATMAN BEGINS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and THE MACHINIST. Jim's detached attitude may signal an imminent mental breakdown, but it's also an asset for a profession that demands cold, calculated action. Bale plays this ticking bomb in such a way that he's never likable, yet you can't take your eyes off him.

Rodríguez complements Bale well. He pulls off the tricky task of making Mike seem like the upright guy despite doing much of the same things Jim does plus repeatedly lying with a straight face to his wife.

The problem with HARSH TIMES is that it plays more like an actor's workshop than a compelling narrative, the first half in particular. Developments are slowly doled out while Jim and Mike repeat their daily crawl through the city. There's little doubt that things can only end badly. At almost two hours, the film delays the explosion until long past when we care.

The inner city is familiar territory for writer-director David Ayer, whose writing credits include the cop dramas TRAINING DAY and DARK BLUE. His directorial debut showcases his ability to conjure a strong sense of place. The endless driving scenes take us deep into the area the characters call home. The seamy visuals underscore Jim's emotional terrain. If more action propelled this water-treading plot, Ayer might have produced the mean streets classic that HARSH TIMES aspires to be.

Grade: C-

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