To my mind, one of the most interesting, talented and frequently
undersung talents in the film industry is Christian Bale. He's been
impressive in virtually every film he has made, despite the overall
quality of the movie itself. In the last few years, Hollywood finally
has begun to take notice and Bale has been landing higher profile roles
in movies like
BATMAN BEGINS and THE PRESTIGE. In HARSH TIMES,
he adds yet another character to his impressive gallery of film portraits.

  Bale portrays Jim Davis, a recent Army Ranger veteran who served
a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He's returned to his hometown of
Los Angeles where his dream is to land a job in law enforcement. But
Jim cannot quite shake the experiences he underwent in the war zone.
He is plagued by nightmares and his efforts to deaden the pain with
drink and drugs could cost him the chance to fulfill his dreams.

  Jim spends a great of time hanging out with his high school buddy
Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodriguez), who has recently been laid off from his
job from a tech services help desk after the position was out-sourced to
India. Mike lives with his lawyer girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) who
has her own dreams and aspirations.

  Jim and Mike have too much free time on their hands and they
drive around Los Angeles getting into various scrapes (usually instigated
by Jim) from which they barely escape.

  
HARSH TIMES marks the feature directorial debut of screenwriter
David Ayer, who rose to fame with his script for
TRAINING DAY.
HARSH TIMES was originally written in 1996 and developed at the
Sundance Institute and in many ways can be seen as a warm up for
TRAINING DAY, which was written much later. Both films revolve around
the pairing of an alpha male and a more mild-mannered  partner who
spend a great deal of time in cars in Los Angeles. Unfortunately,
because
TRAINING DAY reached theaters first -- and earned an Oscar
for Denzel Washington and a nomination for co-star Ethan Hawke,
HARSH TIMES feels like something of a retread.

  Ayer, however, shows a flair for staging set pieces and his work
for the most part is fluid and engrossing. On occasion, he allows the
tension to slack, but he generally corrects the mistake and re-assert
control over the material. The screenplay may have a few plot holes,
but it does provide two meaty roles for its lead actors and Bale and
Rodriguez both rise to the occasion.

  Bale, in particular, delivers a stunning performance that
encompasses a wide range. With his Mexican girlfriend (Tammy Trull)
he is by turns sweetly tender at the start but as his drug-fueled
paranoia begins to take hold, he becomes a scary monster. There are
echoes of his great work in
AMERICAN PSYCHO in his work here but
Bale has developed his skills so that the nuances are even more
defined -- and therefore more terrifying. He dominates the film, but
does not overpower it.

  Matching Bale's intensity is Rodriguez whose character is caught
between his loyalties to his childhood pal and his love for his
upwardly-mobile lawyer girlfriend. Rodriguez doesn't overplay his scenes
and he meshes beautifully with Bale. Yet somehow the character
doesn't seem to be fully realized. It is almost as if we are seeing him
through the eyes of Jim Davis.

  Another flaw in the screenplay -- which was originally written in
the early 1990s -- is that the female characters are not particularly
well-defined. Both Trull and Longoria attempt to inject humanity in
their portrayals but neither transcends the material.

  HARSH TIMES is a portrait of a male-dominated world and in
Christian Bale's fierce performance, Ayer has found the perfect actor.
It's just unfortunate that the screenplay feels like a left-over from an
era that has passed by.


  
Rating:                       C
  
MPAA Rating:              R for strong violence, language and
                                           drug use  
  
Running time:             120 mins.
Harsh Times
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.