After witnessing a rather shocking murder in a South Central LA bar, Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez) is really shaken up. He asks his best friend Jim Davis (Christian Bale) why he’s not affected by it as well. Jim has seen worse, as a Ranger in Iraq, where he did some expert butchering himself. Although Jim acts cool towards the violence around him, it’s not because he isn’t affected by it. On the contrary, Jim’s psyche has been very much affected by the violent acts he has both witnessed and committed. There’s blood on this young man’s hands and even more depravity in his mind.
Harsh Times slipped in and out of release last year without making any impression at all. That’s a shame since it’s a crazy little film, modest in its scope but grand in its ambition. Like the low budget melodramas of Samuel Fuller, Harsh Times doesn’t paint its story in pastels, but in loud primary colors, with intense pressure cooker characterizations. It’s the directorial debut of David Ayer, the screenwriter of Training Day and shares many similarities with that portrait of a young rookie’s schooling in corruption and violence on the streets of LA. The vital difference here is that Ayer has created a script with no real audience identification figure. There’s no clean cut Ethan Hawke character to lead us into this violent world like a Nick Carraway armed with a 9mm. These characters already live in this world and see violence as a day to day occurrence. All have been affected by it in some way, although Jim had to go all the way to the Middle East in order to see it up close and taste it himself.
He has repeated nightmares from his time there, nightmares that leave him shaking in a cold sweat. When we first meet him, Jim is in Mexico, saying good-bye to his supportive and loving girlfriend, Marta (Tammy Trull). He is seen as sensitive and caring, two characteristics that will be hard to discern over the next two hours. He crosses over the border and slips right back into his aimless LA routine with his sidekick, Mike. Mike is supposed to be looking for a job, given lunch money and a pep talk by his girlfriend/mommy Sylvia (Eva Longoria). Sylvia is a lawyer and has clearly outgrown Mike. She treats him like a child since he’s committed to acting like one. Jim and Mike head out for a series of daily adventures that include stealing some weed, smoking said weed, drinking some beers, and looking for some “bitches”.
Jim seems to have a plan for himself, however. He’s testing for a job with the LAPD and hopes to become a cop, bust some heads, do some deals on the side for pocket change and marry Marta, doing his part to “squeeze out a few kids.” This plan offers him a direction, which is cut short when he receives notice that he is no longer a candidate for the LAPD. This is not the kind of news someone like Jim needs. Things actually get worse when he’s offered a position with Homeland Security. These feds seem to be more than happy that Jim has failed his psych exam so spectacularly. Only a really crazy SOB would want to go to Colombia with a license to kill at will. What follows is a downward spiral that is riveting in it’s operatic absurdity and tabloid social and political commentary.
Although he’s perhaps a bit too far east of South Central LA, Christian Bale can still do his brand of crazy like no one else except perhaps Jack Nicholson. Bale specializes in the very specific upper middle class white male who seems to be wearing his tighty whiteys a size too small. Here, he plays Jim with an expression of increasing physical pressure. Bale is a fine actor, but there are limits when the writer has provided you with gems like, “I got a bone, Gracie!” While Bale gets the spotlight, Freddy Rodriguez is actually the main character. It’s Mike Alonzo who gets to live and learn from the chaos that erupts. Rodriguez has a challenging role since Mike is manipulated into doing whatever the movie needs him to do. It’s up to Rodriguez to make the choices seem to be rooted in actual motivations. He actually does a great job in giving variations to his facial expressions all of which say the same thing: “You really ARE crazy, aren’t you, dude?” He shifts up the level of intense brow furrowing from scene to scene to convey the fact that Jim is getting worse.
Familiar character actor Terry Crews appears in a one scene cameo that is probably the best scene in the film. He plays Darrell, an old pal of Jim and Mike’s who is just out of jail. Ayer gets everything right here, from the sly and funny dialogue to the set design that makes his living room look like Grandma’s house taken over by a thug. Crews is so interesting that for a few minutes he takes over the whole movie. You really wish he’ll hook up with our anti-heroes and change the course of the story.
Ayer has written his share of very commercial Hollywood movies like S.W.A.T. and The Fast and The Furious. This isn’t one of them. Harsh Times is Ayer with the gloves off. Strangely, it seems to be very similar to Ayer with the gloves on except that everything is jacked up the nth degree and no effort is really made to win the audience’s heart and minds. The narrative is both generic and insane, a complete contradiction of style. There’s no real plot to speak of but events that seem random are planted to be harvested later just like a script-by-numbers for any summer blockbuster. It’s ostensibly a character drama, but the characters have no more depth than Mel Gibson’s suicidal Riggs in Lethal Weapon. Like Sam Fuller, Ayer wants to say everything at once and at high volume. His writing and directing could be criticized if it weren’t so damn entertaining. Not only does he have characters in scene after scene demonstrate their brotherly relationship, he actually has the cojones to have one of them state that, “You’re like my brother. You’re all I got.” This is genius in the hypercinema style. It’s like playing a radio drama at a school for the deaf. Pumping up the volume isn’t going to make a real difference, but the floor may vibrate so why the hell not.
In Full Metal Jacket Stanley Kubrick depicted the US military as a kind of assembly line manufacturer of a very singular product: a cold blooded and morally empty killing machine. There is a trace of this kind of black comedy idea in Harsh Times and if Ayer picked up on that kind of vibe, Harsh Times may just have been a minor classic. It would’ve made the crazy aspects of the film mesh better with the melodramatic and allowed the thin characterizations to turn into the archetypal cartoons they desire to be. Unfortunately it seems that Ayers means everything quite literally and sees the film as some kind of realistic portrait of life in the hood. This is an Oliver Stone caveman reality.
Harsh Times is presented in widescreen but honestly it does nothing for the film since Ayer has shot it more like a television drama than a big league feature film. The sound mix is in Dolby 5.1 and you can contrast the difference between the hard work done on the final mix with the muffled sound that is presented raw in the deleted scenes extra.
The trailer gallery is a load of fun to watch as a demonstration of the desperation felt by the studio marketing department in finding an angle to sell this weird flick. They try and sell it in every which way possible, each of the trailers misrepresenting the film in a unique way.
David Ayer contributes an audio commentary and initially it sounds as though he recorded it in his bathroom at around two in the morning. It seems that this is the natural speaking style of the very calm and soft spoken Ayer and after a few minutes it becomes quite clear that Ayer is actually a very affable and forthcoming filmmaker who is very comfortable at discussing his own movie critically. He talks about the pressures of moving from the writer’s office to the director’s chair and the new found respect he’s developed for the craft of acting. An overall decent commentary.
The deleted scenes are once again a look into the mind of the filmmakers. All of the scenes cut are, as usual, a case of "good riddance." One in particular demonstrates the nagging flaw of the film. After Mike is tossed out by his wife for being a lying SOB, he goes to his buddy Jim’s apartment to crash. This much is seen in the movie. The deleted scene is a terribly self important moment when Ayer feels the need to play Captain Obvious and have Mike give an “Oscar clip” monologue about how he feels small and how his wife has outgrown him. This is terrible Screenwriting 101 garbage that should’ve been deleted from the deleted scenes.
Ayer’s sincerity gets the best of him, but his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style makes damn sure that Harsh Times is anything but boring. The actors give strong performances and, in fact, Freddy Rodriguez wins last year’s Buster Keaton Stoneface Award for his deadpan reading of the following incredible line of dialogue: “That’s a serious breach of the homey code!”