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Harsh Times

As a general rule screenwriter David Ayer pens stories about people pushing the limits of their environment, in particular those who seek to bend the law or bring corruption into law enforcement. He sculpted a good script with that premise in Training Day, but rather than accepting that success, moving on and broadening his horizons, he kept churning out cop flicks, each one getting increasingly worse than the last. His latest story, which he decided to direct himself, takes a darker turn and pulls together his most talented cast to date, but still somehow sinks to the bottom of the pile.

Jim Davis (Christian Bale), no apparent relation to the Garfield writer, and his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez) lived out their teenage years on the wrong side of the street in LA. Both have a history with drugs, alcohol, guns, and lots and lots of women. At some point both became adults but neither really grew up. Jim, a white boy, joined the Army, went to Afghanistan and came back with severe psychological trauma, finding solace in the arms of a Mexican woman who lives in poverty south of the border. Mike, a latino, stayed home, and worked small jobs to put his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) through law school. One honorable discharge and one law degree later, the two men find themselves in desperate need of real careers. Jim wants to work for the LAPD or some Federal agency in hopes of abusing the system. Mike just wants a job that pays well so that Sylvia will stop nagging him about it. There’s only one problem: they’d much rather spend their time getting wasted.

While that may sound like the perfect setup for a comedy movie worthy of the Van Wilder label, this is meant to be a serious film. Granted most of the time is spent watching Jim and Mike relive their youth by doing really stupid things. This, however is some genuine stupidity, engaged in on the backstreets of Los Angeles by grown men who have refused to grow up, think they’re invincible, and spend their days drinking and smoking weed while running around getting involved in all kinds of messed up situations. How messed up? At one point it involves saline solution, a modified turkey baster and Christian Bale’s penis. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Amidst all the craziness, the movie tries to overtly address a few important issues including friendship, corruption in law enforcement, love, drugs, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, race, murder, street gangs, the war in Afghanistan, sacrifice, revenge, death, and the status of Hispanic/Mexican/latino culture on both sides of the border. OK, so it tries to overtly address a lot of important issues, but in trying to be a movie about everything it ends up being a movie about nothing. Jim and Mike’s friendship, which is meant to be the center of the story, gets lost in a sea of mish-mashed situations and stream-of-consciousness story-telling.

Christian Bale, as always, offers an amazing performance, as do many of his fellow cast members. The portrayals are genuine and intense, but completely wasted on a film whose script is about twenty-four revisions away from being good. The storyline and dialogue feel like the work of a sixteen year-old who has too many rap CDs in his collection and spends way too much time watching ‘hood movies.

For his first time directing, Ayer shows that he knows how to position the camera and draw incredible scenes from his actors. He also shows that he’s too passionate about his own material to do what needs to be done to make it a coherent, meaningful movie. Harsh Times, indeed. Ayer is in for many harsher times if this is the direction he insists on going.