October of 2002 I campaigned for Christian Bale to
get the role of Batman. It happened, though I’m sure my pleading had as much to
do with the eventual outcome as the position of the sun, the color of grass, or
the value of the Euro. It was obvious simply by looking at the man’s presence,
skills as an actor, and his physicality. Now I have a different request for the
powers that in be in Hollywood.

Clone this man.

He’s just too damn good and too damn versatile to just
be one guy. We need six or seven Christian Bales walking around town giving us
reliability and consistency even most “legends” can’t deliver.

So, Harsh Times

Bale is in peak form here as a military vet with a few
screws loose, a Mexican honey waiting over the border for a chance at love and
marriage, and a self-destructive streak that overlaps into the life of his best
friend played by Freddy Rodriguez. Bouncing between languages, displaying both
the fire and laziness of a misguided young adult, and with shades he hasn’t
shown onscreen previously Bale is nothing less than extraordinary. There’s a
random and unstructured pace and feel for the film and Bale’s manic energy and
willingness to cavort all across the dramatic map marries perfectly with it.
Rodriguez is amazing as well, especially when given some real meat to chew on
in the film’s last act. They’re a surprising acting tandem and they raise Harsh
from being a simple cousin to writer/director David Ayer’s
earlier works Training Day and Dark Blue to a worthy entry in its own right.

The majority of the film takes place in automobiles as
Bale and his buddy drive around Los Angeles looking for work, looking for
drugs, and looking for trouble. Bale’s haunted by memories of extremely
complicated situations from his overseas activity and when he’s turned down by
the LAPD he has to find a different way to become a man of the law. Rodriguez
is a weak willed but ultimately stand-up guy who has put his lady (Eva
Longoria) through law school and been the trusty sidekick so long it hurts. He
bends to the will of his buddy’s whims and wild side and it keeps him out of
the running for any of life’s hand me downs. It’s a very simple architecture,
but where Ayer excels is in letting characters breathe. There’s very little
action, but when things are heated the performance is so dead on and unpredictability
of the events is as strong as it is, the film connects on that oft-praised
visceral level you hear about in movie reviews. Training Day had some
very powerful moments that were made all the more so by the character work, ultimately
leading to awards and box office success. This is like a much smaller cousin to
that film and you could see how Bale’s Jim David could become an Alonzo Harris
in time. Since it focuses on the other side of the law as well as civilian
life, Harsh Times feels almost like a prequel or something which was conceived

For the first half of the film there’s not much to
cling to except for Bale’s performance. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants
to be; a character study, a crime film, a statement on how many are left
without options after being in war. When it does get its feet under it, it
moves quite fast and there are a few really intense moments that Ayer is making
himself a name for being capable at delivering. Training Day’s bathtub
interrogation’s a good example and there’s a scene in a seedy Hispanic bar that
is equally hard-hitting here. It’s made even more chilling by the glee in which
Bale’s character absorbs it all in. This is an antihero for the 2000’s, a lazy
loose cannon who feels entitled to everything. Bale is really fierce in this, a
really nice flip side to what Bruce Wayne would have become had he fled to
Compton instead of Tibet. Freddy Rodriguez is an interesting actor, one of the
stronger elements of Six Feet Under and
always a joy to watch. I feared he’d be the token Hispanic character here, but
this is a film rich with well developed ethnic characters. I found myself
wanting Ayer to dig deeper into the scary and ripe world of dangerous back
alleys and dive bars as he touches on here, because it’s so much more
interesting a palette than corporate criminals and the Eurotrash in many of
today’s thrillers. As a director Ayer seems assured and relaxed and the film’s
look exists somewhere in the worlds between Collateral and Training
, something I guess we might as well call the “L.A. Look”. It’s one
of those little movies that doesn’t really break new ground but does a solid
job in familiar territory.

In a world where shows like The Shield cross these kinds of lines on a weekly basis, it’s hard
to give Harsh Times too much love but it does represent David Ayer as
one to watch behind the lens and more proof that Christian Bale is one of the
sneakiest true genius actors working on this little blue ball today.

7.7. out of 10