Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

David Ayer, writer and director of the new MGM picture ‘Harsh Times’ obviously has a love / hate relationship with his home town of Los Angeles California.  His last four films, all of which he wrote the screenplays for, ‘S.W.A.T,’ ‘Dark Blue’, ‘Training Day’ and ‘Harsh Times’ all display the dark, underside of Los Angeles in some form or fashion in a way that only one who is intimately familiar with these streets could do.  With ‘Harsh Times’ however, Ayer gets the chance to actually drive the car of the engine he’s built by directing one of his screenplays for the first time.  What he has managed to create is a dirty, gritty, meandering, somewhat long and tedious, but ultimately an enjoyable tale of one man’s journey into self-destruction.

Meet Jim Davis (Christian Bale), a twenty six year old out of control stray bullet just out of Iraq.  To say that Jim is a mess is quite the understatement.  A lethally trained Army Ranger with a trigger quick temper, a drinking problem, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and a trunk full of guns, this ain’t a cat I’m trying to hang with.  But that just me and apparently not the way his number one buddy, Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez), feels though, as he seems to possess an unlimited tolerance level for his psycho partner and joins in with him, few question asked, as they drink their way to one loose misadventure after another. 

Mike and Jim aren’t bad guys, just two homeboys who probably don’t need to be hanging together.  Jim is using his ranger training to get a job with the LAPD, but fails the psyche test.  Fortunately, crazy isn’t an issue for the Feds and Jim lucks up on an opportunity with the department of Homeland Security.  Mike recently was

outsourced out of his job and his living off his loyal, beautiful (this is Eva Longoria we’re talking about so beautiful is kind of redundant) paralegal girlfriend Sylvia.  All Sylvia wants from her man is for him to find a job, and he’s giving it his best but Jim is always distracting him with drinking, smoking the blunt, jacking vatos’, stealing heaters or whatever.  Jim has his own true love south of the border in Mexico, and despite his mental issues, his main focus is getting a job and getting his girl a visa so he can bring her over and marry her.  Why do I get the sinking suspicion that this isn’t going happen.

Sinking suspicion is a good description of ‘Harsh Times’ as there is an overriding sense of doom and despair throughout the film.  The movie always seems to be on the edge that something horrible is on the precipice.  I absolutely love the way this movie was shot, with the grain, the grit, the camera movements, the composition, just about everything that Ayer was attempting do visually, and I think he accomplished it.  As I stated earlier, this artist loves and hates his environment and he photographs some beautiful vistas to go along with the gritty violence that punctuates the film.  The main problem with the film, which is odd since the Ayer is a screenwriter by trade, is the story and the dialog.  Bale and Rodriguez are very good as life long friends and are believable, but damn, who actually talks the way their characters talk?  Hell, I’m an urban guy, though not from L.A., and I don’t know anybody who talks like these characters talk.  Duuuude, duuuude, hey duuude, why you pull your gun duuuuude….then multiply that by 10 to the 14th power and it gets on a nerve quick.

The movie ran a bit over two hours and the two main characters spent plenty of time in their car trading dudeisms to one another, but I still never got the feeling I really knew either one those ‘dudes’.  How is it that this white guy and this Mexican-American guy became such close friends in the first place?  Why is it that Mike does WHATEVER Jim tells him to do, even it involves breaking off sex with Eva Lon… errrr… Sylvia, that is, just to hang out with him?  What does Jim have over Mike?  ‘Cause he’s gotta have something!  Maybe an atomic bomb would halt my progress on that… maybe.

It seems Ayer received and unprecedented amount of freedom for a first time director and as such this flick is about fifteen to twenty minutes of editing decisions away from being a really good movie.  As it is, it just runs too long and as far as I can tell, for no particular reason.    Still, I enjoyed ‘Harsh Times’ despite it’s warts and I really enjoyed the look of the film.  It would seem to me that David Ayer is a true talent to be on the look out for, either as a Director or as a Screenwriter, but just not both at the same time.

Bud’s Second:

Reasons why I believe that Chris was way too kind in his review of this

5) Chris liked the "gritty" appearance of the movie, and thought it was visually appealing. I thought that nearly all of the scenes appeared as staged as a high school performance of "West Side Story."

4) And the transitions between scenes were really distracting to me for some reasons. Maybe it's just me, but it seemed like at one moment it was a nice evening, and the next moment it was the middle of the night and raining, and next it was evening and nice again.  The movie is structured somewhat the way "Taxi Driver" was, but the disjointed time lapses really threw that off.

3) The dialogue in this movie was atrocious! Chris mentions all the dudeisms, but he significantly understates how much this detracts from the movie overall! For me, the dialogue (or lack of it) really detracted from the credibility of the characters.  These are two men who have had an entire life's worth of experiences in only 26 years, and yet they speak like surfer airheads ... I'm just not buying it.

2) I watched the movie, wanting to like the Mike and Jim characters. But the way that Bale played Jim, it was like he was acting the role in front of a mirror for his own enjoyment ... Jim was just constantly posing, in each and every scene.  And Mike? Well, how dumb can one dude me?  Obviously Mike's buddy Jim is on his way down the toilet, and yet Mike just "humm-dee-dumm's" right along with him! And then, it's like lightning strikes, and Mike "figures out" that Jim is a psycho!  GET REAL!!

1) As Chris indicates, the movie did a really good job of giving you the feeling that something was about to go wrong imminently. That is really hard to do, and this film does it well. And it was really cool to watch, for like the first hour. But finally, after nearly two hours of waiting for that something to finally go wrong, when it does, it's totally anti-climactic. 

In my opinion, Chris gives this film way way way too much credit for what it is.

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