Reviewed Jan 31, 2012
Stuart Barr’s review:
David Ayer the writer of the dark LA-set crime dramas Training Day and Dark Blue (as well as SWAT and The Fast and the Furious, but hey you have to pay the bills right?) makes his debut with this equally dark LA-set anti-buddy drama.
Jim (Christian Bale) is a discharged veteran of US campaign in Afghanistan. He suffers from relentless combat nightmares and is desperate to join the LAPD so he can marry his Mexican girlfriend and legitimately bring her over the border. His best buddy is Mike (Freddy Rodríguez) a recently unemployed call centre worker under pressure from his lawyer girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) to find a job. Mike has supported Sylvia through college but now she’s on the up and shoe wants Mike to follow. Mike just wants to chug beers, smoke weed and hang with his best bud Jim. Sylvia is killing his buzz.
The plan is that Jim will drive Freddy around LA dropping off resumes, but it quickly goes awry in a haze of pot smoke as Jim and Freddy drift aimlessly from one scrape to another. There’s a running gag in which Jim and Mike have various drug dealers and hangers on leave fake messages on Sylvia’s answering machine from possible employers.
The initial stages of the film play out like a live action Beavis and Butthead, two stoner buddies drifting aimlessly calling everyone they meet “dude” and ogling women. However things turn gradually darker when Jim learns he has been rejected by the LAPD and has the first of many psychotic episodes. At first Jim’s tales of assassinations and Afghan combat seem to be Rambo fantasies but after the Department of Homeland Security headhunt for possible recruitment they start to take on a worrying level of plausibility. It is soon apparent that Jim is not playing with a full deck and Sylvia is right to want Mike to keep him at arms length.
Harsh Times is a decent enough film, with good character work from its two leads. Bale is on explosive form as every girlfriend’s nightmare of a best buddy. Freddy Rodríguez initially looks like he’s going to be blown off screen, but he successfully holds his own especially when the film turns pitch black. Bale adds another star turn to his increasingly impressive CV. The final act achieves an impressive intensity. It’s obvious from very early that things aren’t going to end well, but even so the final act is impressively bleak.
However I found the political overtones of the film rather unconvincing, is it really the policy of the Dept of Homeland Security to actively hire hair trigger psychopaths rejected as psychologically unsound by the LAPD? I found this whole subplot so implausible as to wonder if it was all in Jim’s head, however I think we are supposed to take this at face value.
Harsh Times is worth a look, it’s good to see a character based film after the months of blockbuster silliness we’ve had to endure. But it’s no match to the seventies classics it works hard to emulate.