"Harsh Times," the directorial debut of screenwriter David Ayer ("Training Day," "Dark Blue"), is the spectacle of an anemic talent thrashing amidst oversized ambitions. Ayer seems to have some strong feelings about street life, government skullduggery, masculinity (his he-man cred's well established in the press kit), but all he can think to do with his thwarted intentions is set a match to the pile and hope audiences make out pathos through the smoke.
Fresh back from "Trashcanistan" and back on the streets of South Central L.A., ex-front line GI Jim Davis (Christian Bale, manfully ignoring the fact that he shares a name with the creator of "Garfield") reunites with best buddy Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). They're both ostensibly looking for work--Jim with the LAPD, Mike anywhere, just so's to please his old lady (Eva Longoria)--but as soon as they get to driving around together, beers are cracked, the dogging starts, and the resumes get lost; it's so good to be back together that it takes Mike the better part of the movie to notice that his buddy's going combat-shock crazy.
"Harsh Times" uses the familiar anecdotal structure of the just-another-day-in-the-'hood drama (errands here include snatching a small-time dealer's sack, visiting an ex-girlfriend hoping for some ass, and trying to pawn a pistol), along with the ticking timeline for getting out of the ghetto before the animosities set in motion during the film come home to roost. Oh, and of course characters reference mutual acquaintances who never actually show up in the movie (preferably with funny nicknames--the gold standard is still "Menace II Society"'s Willie Lump-Lump). Toss in a calm-before-the-storm, south-of-the-border idyll a la Peckinpah--Ayer currently has a remake of "The Wild Bunch" in production--and you have "Harsh Times": a movie for guys who like movies (that feel exactly like other movies).
Bale gets MVP; in a role which would've, in most hands, been the most shameless piece of West Coast Caucasian gangsta bluff since that guy from Sublime died, he pries his way inside and makes Jim human--he's recognizable as one of those white flight left-behinds who learned to be hard by carrying the "white boy" chip on his shoulder through public school. He's crushed by the dull fatality of the script, but see his face go taut and little-boy crestfallen when he sees his old girl wearing some gangbanger's property-of tattoo.
Bale and Rodriguez offer a feasible interplay, but who wants to be stuck in a car with them? Their eternal homie-ing is exhausting, especially to those of us who can remember how Nick Gomez ("New Jersey Drive") and his actors could make this kind of bullshitting roll along. The untextured, interminable sameness of "Harsh Times"' dialogue is nearly drone-like, and I don't think that tedium is part of the plan: the film seems plenty delighted by its own bros-behaving-badly misbehavior, especially when a fight pops off. This is already the new favorite movie of posturing tough guys with self-shot shirtless pics on their hard drives; they just don't know it yet.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.
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