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November 10, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | November 10, 2006 |

For a man who got his start in Newsies, Christian Bale has come a long way and matured into one of the finest actors of his generation. Sure, he may have technically gotten his start with Empire of the Sun and Henry V, but he’ll forever be branded in the minds of many as the kid who shouted “Let’s soak ‘em for Crutchy!” and leaped around a soundstage trading duets with Bill Pullman. And then, goodness, there was the horror that was Swing Kids. It wasn’t until he came screaming out of the dark with 2000’s American Psycho that his name began to convey a sense of power, of gravitas, and he further cemented that persona — the one of the layered and gifted actor, not chainsaw-wielding maniac — with Batman Begins, one of the best superhero films ever made. Bale was able to bring humanity and believability to the role of Bruce Wayne, which is no small feat, since he spent most of the movie making weird rubber suits for himself and hanging upside-down from rooftops. But not even Bale’s considerable charisma can save Harsh Times, a sweaty, stupid, pointless film written and directed by David Ayer, who penned Training Day (good) and The Fast and the Furious (uh oh). Ayer makes his directorial debut with Harsh Times, and it’s enough to make me think he should call it a day and go back to writing. Or maybe just leave Hollywood altogether.

Jim David (Bale), an ex-Army Ranger, can’t shake his memories of serving in Iraq, specifically of brutal firefights and the multiple kills he racked up. He awakens from his latest nightmare in Mexico, where he’s visiting Marta (Tammy Trull), the girl he loves. Bale oscillates easily between raw force and surprising tenderness, as he shares a few quiet moments of genuine love with Marta before driving back to L.A. and his other life. The next morning, newly clad in a suit and striding up to the door of a house before pounding on the door for entry, it becomes clear that Jim functions most of the time as an overly aggressive alpha male, just waiting for the chance to snap and assert his manhood on an unsuspecting civilian. The house he’s at belongs to his buddy, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), and Mike’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria). Sylvia’s a lawyer; you can tell because she carries a briefcase and uses words like “deposition.” Mike’s recently unemployed, and Jim is there to drive him around town and help him drop off résumés. There’s no love lost between Jim and Sylvia: He attempts to flirt with her, and she warns Mike about not getting into trouble or partying. “No drinking,” she tells him, and it’s an emasculating moment for Mike, not least because he’s the kind of guy who can always get himself talked into a blind rage by friends like Jim, and Jim knows it. Mike also knows Jim can get him into bad situations and maybe even ruin his life, but he loves him anyway. Ayer attempts to persuade the viewer that this kind of relationship is friendship, albeit a poisoned one, but it doesn’t work. For whatever reason, Mike has a blind spot for Jim, and instead of feeling sympathetic for a man edging closer to the abyss, I just wound up not caring. For all Mike and Jim’s talk of what it is to be a man, neither one was willing to accept the consequences of their actions. That’s weakness.

Jim chauffeurs Mike around L.A. and swings by the police station to find out if he’s been accepted to start training at the academy. Finding only a rejection letter, Jim explodes with rage once he’s back on the road, punching the steering wheel and attempting to pick fights with other motorists. Mike coaxes him back into the car, but when Jim finally calms down, he sets out to get pretty smashed. Soon enough, he and Mike are cruising aimlessly around town, drunk and high, and Jim takes a detour to visit his ex and hopefully get a little tail. Unfortunately, her new boyfriend and a gang of cholos roll up and jump Jim, at which point Mike comes to his aid and they rip off the gang.

Mike starts to be pulled along in Jim’s wake, following him down a dead-end path of driving around and getting high and selling guns and running weed across the border and in general making some shoddy career choices. However, Ayer’s focus isn’t what it was in Training Day, in which he maintained dramatic tension by restricting all the action to one long, hellish day in the life of a rookie undercover cop. Harsh Times unfolds over a period of two to three days, but that’s all the leeway Ayer needs to abandon any pretense of dramatic build; the taut focus of his earlier work falls by the wayside as Jim and Mike just keep driving in circles, doing nothing and learning less.

Rodriguez, so engaging on “Six Feet Under,” does his best with the flat script he’s been given, but there’s only so much he can do. He and Bale share a few — a very few — brief moments of genuine camaraderie, relaxing in each other’s presence the way only old friends do, but Ayer never gives them any chances to really bring out the history that’s kept these characters together for so long. Longoria, meanwhile, isn’t terrible, but that’s because she’s largely offscreen. It’s almost unfair to criticize her, since she’s never shown any kind of depth or range in the past, so to expect her to bring an unseen A-game is a little unrealistic. Still, her wooden deliveries and vacant eyes are more suited to the soap operas where she got her start. Bale outguns her every step of the way, bringing touches of humanity to an increasingly inhuman role.

It’s that inhumanity, though, that ultimately kills the film. Harsh Times suffers from generational loss, as if Ayer is just ripping off his own worst ideas. There’s nothing to recommend in Harsh Times, but oddly, almost nothing original to condemn. The half-cocked redemption angle, the emotional trauma, the sorry ending: It’s all been done before, and better. It’s like Bale himself has said: This confession has meant nothing.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Harsh Times / Daniel Carlson

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