09 July 2008

Harsh Times

Harsh Times Not Harsh Enough

By Kristin Battestella

David Ayer’s Harsh Times is a tale of bitter realities in South Central Los Angeles. Although star Christian Bale received praise all around, the 2005 action flick found mixed reviews from critics. Despite gritty performances and authenticity, Harsh Times doesn’t go far enough.

New media darling Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) stars as Jim Davis, an army ranger recently returned from Afghanistan. After his refused admittance into the LAPD, Jim returns to his previous life of smoking pot, joy riding, petty theft, and selling guns. Jim’s best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under) joins in on this downward spiral, despite warnings from his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria, Desperate Housewives). Jim could leave this life of crime behind him and return to the peace of Mexico with his love Marta (Tammy Trull, Invasion), but a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder interferes with Jim inside and out.

Now, I must say Harsh Times is not the type of film I normally watch. Independent features exposing the dark underbelly of other countries or situations new to me, those I like. Growing up near Philadelphia and Camden, however, makes me a little immune to the plights of South Central Los Angeles. Drugs! Crime! Sex! The errant and destructive youth! Go down the street to my local city park’s basketball courts after dark and you’ve got the same thing. The subject matter of Harsh Times is harsh, yes, but no longer all that shocking. Nothing against the folks really caught in the non glitz and glamour in the City of the Angels, but Ayer (Training Day) doesn’t take his story deep enough or far enough. Where there should be heartfelt reflective meaning, Harsh Times serves up superficial dudes doing stupid stuff while high. There are twisted puppies out there who will treat Harsh Times like a gospel to follow rather than a deterrence against the readily available crime traps waiting for the down trodden.

Thankfully, Christian Bale takes over Harsh Times. After downs like Newsies, Velvet Goldmine, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Bale has finally received due acclaim in Hollywood. Sure, hits like Batman Begins pay the bills, but Bale has done fine independent work in American Psycho, Equilibrium, The Machinist, and now Harsh Times. Action or tormented, period piece or science fiction, Bale puts his entire essence into each varied part. Proud and loving Jim turns into a psycho criminal- there’s no doubt he will. We know this scenario can’t possibly end well, but Bale’s asinine degradation is fascinating to watch, yet absolutely off putting at the same time. Some ladies may still find the unrecognizable Englishman’s hard ass American styled and Spanish speaking performance hot and sexy; but were you to see Jim on the street, you’d cross to the other side. What’s so creepy is that we all know a Jim. The crooked loose cannon who wants to join the police department so he can have a license to get the all access criminal pass. It’s a sad reflection on American society created perfectly by Bale.

Harsh Times keeps it real in the supporting cast and locations. The mix of Hispanics struggling in LA contrasted with Black gangs and idyllic farm life in Mexico works for Ayer. There’s enough of each piece to get the feel, and each segment is honest and accurate, not offensive. There’s beauty and destruction all around. Again, I would have liked to see more depth on these social commentaries from first time director Ayer, rather than tour de force Bale, but we must take the advocate as well. This isn’t an art house picture, and Ayer keeps the action and language for the young edgy demographic.

Is Harsh Times a bad movie? No. There is a young audience out there for it, and Harsh Times is a movie of which Bale should definitely be proud. But with such heavy subject matter, there is more to be had than action yarns and respectable film. With a meatier script, who knows where Harsh Times could have gone.

Ayer’s commentary track is a nice feature, and the deleted scenes give some more weight. If you’re an action fan or a Christian aficionado, Harsh Times is an affordable dvd worth the food for thought.


Anonymous said...

I loved HARSH TIMES. I think this film is underrated and would love to see Christian Bale and David Ayer work another picture together.

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I think you're right in that Ayers and Bale should work together again. This film gets a lot right, but I do think together they are capable of bigger and better things.