A psychotic seizure of a performance by Christian Bale dominates “Harsh Times,” the directorial debut of David Ayer that channels “Taxi Driver” while also feeling like a dry run for Ayer’s subsequently written “Training Day.” Bale’s showy turn as a ’round-the-bend Gulf War vet and the pic’s sensationalistic treatment of modern ills will likely induce a distrib and some viewers to bite. But the relish with which the film pursues its deterministic negativity will turn off most audiences.
As if transfixed by a role that matches in emotional extremes the physical extremes he embraced in “The Mechanist,” Bale takes possession of his crazed character here to an alarming degree. Haunted by Gulf War memories, his Jim Davis is still perfectly capable of dressing in coat and tie and putting on a responsible, civilized front, as well as of convincing his south-of-the-border girlfriend that he loves her and will get her a visa to come to the U.S.
But left to his own devices, Jim is a world-class screw-up, an overloaded circuit of nasty attitudes, devilish intentions and antisocial and illegal proclivities whose only predictable trait is to incite confrontation and violence.
To the weak-willed, the loquacious Jim can be mightily persuasive, and so it is with childhood pal Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), a nice kid who tells his upwardly mobile g.f. Sylvia (Eva Longoria) that he’ll be spending the day job hunting. But when Jim is rejected for his dream career with the LAPD, he goes ballistic, inducing Mike to get high with him as prelude to a drive through Los Angeles’ societal twilight.
Script was written, with Sundance Lab input, in 1996, and its dynamic closely resembles that of “Training Day.” Both involve a malleable young man being morally led astray by a charismatically corrupt partner, largely while cruising around threatening neighborhoods.
It’s a potent dramatic set-up, especially with a commanding actor like Denzel Washington or Bale playing the hard-ass. A lot of the stuff Jim pulls possesses a voyeuristic amusement quotient in direct proportion to its outrageousness.
The crunch arrives when Jim gets a job offer from Homeland Security. Ayer the sociopolitical commentator weighs in heavily here, stressing how the government is willing to employ Jim knowing full well what a loose cannon he is; as Mike says in wonderment, “The craziest head I know is gonna be a Fed.”
Catch is that the job is working the anti-drug beat in the hottest spots in Colombia, forcing Jim to decide between his law enforcement career and his loving Mexican honey. No surprise that the physical manifestation of Jim’s inner tension isn’t pretty or violence-free.
As a study of mental imbalance and living two lives at once, Bale’s work here can be placed on the same shelf as his chilling perf in “American Psycho.” Actor’s investment in Jim Davis seems complete, his transformations between the two sides of his personality seamless and frighteningly convincing.
Unfortunately, Jim’s cohort, Mike, doesn’t play off him nearly as effectively as Ethan Hawke’s green cop did opposite his would-be mentor in “Training Day.” Mike can’t score any points up against either Jim or the feisty Sylvia, and Rodriguez, try as he might, can’t elevate him out of pushover status.
Most of the supporting cast seems juiced by their physically upfront roles, and Ayer’s dialogue often crackles. Stylistically, however, the pic is routine, marked by standard visual coverage and a generally unattractive look. When your model is clearly “Taxi Driver,” a lack of directorial flair is especially conspicuous.