Harsh Times Review
Jim David (Christian Bale) and Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodríguez) are childhood buddies from a rough suburb of Los Angeles. Now in their mid twenties, they're facing the point in their lives when just hanging out and having fun with your friends has to make way for steady jobs, relationships and adult responsibility.
Jim has recently left the army after seeing active service in Afghanistan. He wants to join the LAPD and bring his Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) across the border so he can marry her. Mike, whose clerical job has been outsourced to India, is under pressure from his lawyer girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) to hit the streets and find work.
When Jim shows up at Mike's door, Sylvia is immediately concerned. She's scared of him and she doesn't like the way her boyfriend changes whenever Jim's around. Nevertheless, Mike takes off with him for one final shot at reliving their troublemaking youth. What Mike doesn't know however, and what Sylvia rightly suspects, is that combat has changed Jim and turned his adolescent recklessness into something far more dangerous.
So begins a kind of rites of passage drama in which Jim and Mike spend their last few days together as overgrown boyz n the hood. Their adventures are set against the violent backdrop of Los Angeles, which is portrayed here as a lawless hell-hole in which Jim and Mike can't travel a block without encountering a shooting, a stabbing, a drug buy or a trigger-happy cop.
The script is by David Ayer, who's written about the crime-ridden streets of LA before in the dirty-cop thrillers Training Day and Dark Blue. This time he's written a gritty character drama with no formal plot as such, just a series of incidents involving his two protagonists. Ayer also makes his directing debut with Harsh Times and, for the most part, it's a gripping piece of work.
Ayer is certainly a fine actor's director. Christian Bale is outstanding as a self-destructive adrenalin addict, arguably topping his impressive work in American Psycho and The Machinist. He makes Jim credibly frightening yet gives him enough appeal to make it clear why people would be drawn to him. Freddy Rodríguez, from TV's Six Feet Under, is inevitably overshadowed by Bale's powerhouse turn but then Mike is supposed to be overshadowed by Jim. He's always been the beta male to Jim's alpha. Rodríguez's quieter, more restrained performance helps us understand the two young men's relationship perfectly. Sometimes Mike can keep Jim in check, sometimes not.
Harsh Times is confidently filmed. You might argue that Ayer's vivid, in-your-face style of shooting, using handheld cams to film action, has become a little too familiar from its use on TV shows like The Shield and 24 as well as numerous movies but it works well enough. His occasional, attention-grabbing camera tricks vary from effective - a slow-motion shotgun shooting - to distracting - the quick red-tinted cuts meant to represent Jim's flashes of rage.
For me, the movie's most serious flaw is that the extent of Jim's madness is revealed much too early, in an unnecessary opening flashback to Afghanistan which shows him executing a surrendering prisoner. It might have been more effective if the movie gradually revealed how screwed up he is, if we discovered it when Mike does. Instead, we can guess from the beginning that Jim will go into meltdown - the only question is when and how.
Also worth noting: Ayer's story displays the same reliance on coincidence that was the one major flaw in his excellent script for Training Day. Remember the girl Ethan Hawke saved in that film and how it paid off later on? There's nothing quite that unbelievable in Harsh Times but the re-appearance of one particular character at the worst possible time is still pretty hard to swallow.
Despite these issues, Harsh Times is a riveting character drama and a highly charged piece of adult entertainment (and I mean adult - the swear count must rival Scarface's). It would be worth seeing just for Christian Bale's work but beyond that, it's easily one of the best films currently on general release.