a critiQal film review Harsh Times (2006)

Plot: After returning to LA from the conflict in the Middle East, mentally unstable ex-soldier Jim (Bale) struggles to find meaning for his life. While he works on getting a job on the police force, he drifts into a life of crime, bringing with him his best friend Mike (Rodriguez), who is trying to turn over a new leaf for his wife (Longoria).

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Since I wasn’t a big fan of Training Day (in fact, I wasn’t able to make it through the entire movie without getting bored enough to shut if off), attaching the name of the Training Day screenwriter, David Ayer, to his directorial debut, Harsh Times, did nothing for me.

The first thing that did make me want to see the film was Christian Bale, who has done an amazing job in previous roles, whether he was re-inventing the Batman in Batman Begins (2005) or playing a man who is criminally insane in American Psycho. Plus, the preview looked pretty good too, so I figured I’d check it out, and hope the second time around would be better for Mr. Ayer.

Christian Bale gives another amazing performance in Harsh Times. He has the rare ability to play almost anyone on-screen, and he showcases that again here, making his character, Jim, likable – even though the audience knows the man has a killer personality and is more than slightly deranged. That’s not an easy feat to do – make your character likable, even though he’s not such a nice guy most of the time. But Christian Bale manages to pull it off with an ease that’s almost frightening.

His character, Jim, is more a product of his past than anything else. Waking up in cold sweats due to memories of his recent experiences in the war, Jim is having a difficult time adjusting to life back at home. Over there, he was a merciless killing machine. Back home, he’s hard-pressed to fit in among the non-combatants, especially since he’s grown an appetite for the killing. Since he can’t go around killing everyone back at home, he resorts to petty theft and other illegal activities for his rush. When flashbacks from the war begin to blur his idea of reality, he becomes as dangerous as he ever was over there – worse, because he’s not following orders anymore.

Freddy Rodriguez, as Jim’s best friend Mike in Harsh Times, does a great job as well in his supporting role. At times fearful of his friend, he’s always there by his side, trying to cool him down when Jim’s temper gets the better of him – even possibly sacrificing his long-term relationship in order to keep Jim on an even keel. He knows what Jim can do if he gets out of control – and he does everything he can to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a great performance, and really shows how well Freddy can act if he has someone the likes of Christian Bale to work with.

Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives” (TV)) also gives a very good performance as Mike’s girlfriend in Harsh Times. Struggling to keep Mike on the straight and narrow, she doesn’t quite know what Jim is capable of…but can feel it. She knows he’s a bad influence on Mike, and can’t understand Mike’s willingness to protect his friend. To her, Jim is the embodiment of what’s wrong in the world today, and would like nothing better than if were out of Mike’s life forever. With a role like this, she announces that she will have a career after “Desperate Housewives” (TV) – and it could be a pretty good one at that.

Harsh Times does a brilliant job bringing the war home to the viewers. While many are up in arms about casualties of the war, they tend to forget how much the survivors have been changed by the brutality of war. Christian Bale is able to bring this one man’s psyche into superb focus (despite all the director’s efforts to the contrary)…and shows us that not all casualties of war happen on a battlefield.

With Christian Bale’s impressive performance, and good performances by Freddy Rodriguez and Eva Longoria backing him up, it makes David Ayer’s job all that much easier – unfortunately, he doesn’t quite capture the full effort these three are trying to give him in Harsh Times. With the three of them pulling the audience into the story, While he does do a good job of creating a bleak and dirty atmosphere for the story, he tries to pull in too many different sequences. It’s like watching a car crash happen – from seven different angles at once. A bit confusing, and delivers a lot less impact on the psyche. Then, he tries to wrap it all up through a rather clich├ęd ending, and only Bale’s impressive performance keeps the viewer from giving up in disgust.

Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez and Eva Longoria do their best to make Harsh Times worth watching over and over again – while director David Ayer tries to make this one a disaster. In the long run, this one’s worth a rental, but not worth owning.

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