Christian Bale as Jim Davis
Freddy Rodríguez as Mike Alonzo
Eva Longoria as Sylvia
Chaka Forman as Toussant
Tammy Trull as Marta
J.K. Simmons as Agent Richards
Michael Monks as Agent Hollenbeck
Samantha Esteban as Letty
Tania Verafield as Patty
Noel Gugliemi as Flaco
Adriana Millan as Rita
César García Gómez as Listo
Terry Crews as Darrell
Emilio Rivera as Eddy
Sonia Iris Lozada as Gracie
Directed by David Ayer
The strength of “Harsh Times” lies in Ayer’s script and the rapport between his two main characters. For all the entertaining situations they get into, the movie’s amusing moments are counterbalanced by a dark and dreary finale that effectively crushes the movie’s mood.
Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is an ex-Army Ranger, whose killing in foreign countries has left him with deep psychological scars, but he still wants to get a job with the L.A. police department. When that doesn’t work out, he and his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) drive around South Central getting into trouble with gangs and drugs, though Jim’s main goal is to be able to bring his Mexican girlfriend to the country.
David Ayer is best known for writing “Training Day” and being one of many writers on big screen action movies like “The Fast and the Furious” and “S.W.A.T.” Being that all of them were set in L.A., it’s not too shocking that his directorial debut is a veritable travelogue of locations in the crime-ridden South Central area, and once again, he has two characters driving around in a car, shooting the sh*t and getting into all sorts of trouble.
“Harsh Times” is a bit of an odd amalgam of movie genres that’s hard to classify. It isn’t necessarily a comedy or a crime drama or an action-thriller. There’s only the barebones of a plot or story driving these guys to do what they do, as it’s more of a fly-on-the-wall street-level story showing what happens with them over the course of a couple days driving around South Central L.A. Most of the trouble they get into comes from Jim’s boisterous nature, particularly in the face of danger.
“Harsh Times” isn’t a police drama ala “Training Day” or Ayer’s follow-up “Dark Blue,” per se. Davis’ application to join the LAPD was turned down for psychological issues, though it probably wasn’t helped by the amount of drugs he uses. Jim’s good friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) is also looking for a job, mainly to appease his gorgeous working wife (Eva Longoria), who doesn’t cotton to him hanging with the unbalanced Jim. The fact that Jim might be insane does make him the perfect recruit to work for Homeland Security apparently, and the duo decide to spend their last unemployed days hanging out in Mexico, though eventually, Jim’s earlier stunts will catch up to them.
Anyone who’s had to spend time pounding the pavement looking for a job should be able to relate to parts of “Harsh Times” like when Jim tries to fool Mike’s wife into think he’s looking for a job when really, they’re drinking and smoking pot with their corrupt friends as they try to make some money selling a stolen gun. There are many funny bits like when Jim tries to cheat his way through a urine test or pretends to be a police officer to screw with his ex-girlfriend’s new guy. “Harsh Times” is made up of many such amusing vignettes, though not all of them work and it makes for a rather disjointed movie. It’s also hard figuring out what to think of a movie when it keeps changing direction every time it settles into any kind of rhythm or pattern for more than fifteen minutes.
That said, Jim Davis is another great character role for Bale. He’s not a particularly likable guy or one you can empathize with due to his outlandish stunts or when Bale reverts back to “American Psycho” mode. The character does have a softer and more vulnerable side though, mostly when he’s with his Mexican girlfriend Maria, who acts as his rock and foundation. When he learns that he may have to leave her behind to accept his new government job, it sends Jim completely over the edge.
Up until that point, the chemistry and rapport between Bale and Freddy Rodriguez is what drives the movie, keeping you entertained during their many dialogue scenes, thanks to Ayer’s sharp quip-filled script. Not surprisingly, Eva Longoria is the weakest link in the cast, being there simply to look good and give Mike a reason to act as the “good cop” to Davis’ out-of-control maniac, much like Ethan Hawke in “Training Day.”
As a director, Ayer does an okay job on what probably was a limited budget, though his attempts to be stylish sometimes takes away from the storytelling while at other times, the movie just isn’t particularly appealing visually, as the lighting and camerawork show the limited resources. Most of the time, it comes down to the writing and the performances to keep you interested, and it does a good job until Jim starts to completely lose his sh*t. The movie starts losing you at that point, as it gets a bit too dark, shaking off all its earlier humor as it tailspins into a downwards spiral and a downer of an ending.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of Ayer’s testosterone-laden writing in movies like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Training Day” should appreciate the similar nature of his latest crime-drama-comedy mainly for the rapport between the two main characters and the original ideas. As a movie, “Harsh Times” is a bit flawed in its “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” mentality, which ultimately leads to a disappointing conclusion.