November 16, 2006

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Harsh Times (R)
Christian Bale plays the violent sociopath like nobody else in the dark teen-boy fantasy Harsh Times.

At a certain point, when 19-year-olds with film school aspirations were old enough to have seen Pulp Fiction but too young to get all the contextual irony (which, looking back, might have just been a weak excuse for liking a relatively silly movie), Tarantino's particular mix of violence, extreme profanity, careless drug use and general disdain for women became script training wheels. In lieu of a particularly interesting or original story of their own, these Quentannabes would rearrange the elements of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (mixing in their own girlfriends and rap-video-like fantasies) and come up with a script that seemed to spend more time describing the guns than the characters' motivations. Grown-up writer-director David Ayer might have such genuine successes as Training Day on his resume but this movie still feels like a novice's attempt.

Jim (Christian Bale) is the messed-up Army Ranger veteran of an unspecified war wherein he happily killed the "hajis" (the Arab enemies, suspected enemies or potentially innocent bystanders of an unnamed country). Happily in his retelling of it his actions have clearly left him disturbed and prone to bouts of a crippling rage. He tries and fails to get a job with the Los Angeles police department, having failed the psychological part of the exam. This turn of events leaves Jim upset not only because law enforcement is really his only life plan but also because employment is required to bring his Mexican fiance Marta (Tammy Trull) to the U.S. so she can become his wife.

So what does a boy do when his dreams are dashed? Why, he gathers up his best friend and embarks on a spree of bad behavior. Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) is Jim's unfortunate companion. Mike is himself rudderless after his telemarketing job is outsourced. His menial employment has helped pay for his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) to go to law school. Now she's corporate and upwardly mobile while he remains something of a lump. He promises to search for a job but really spends his time getting drunk and high with Jim while driving around the city, getting into minor trouble and having brushes with rather extreme violence.

We see bits of light stream into these dark lives Jim might be able to get a job with Homeland Security (well, "light" for him; this wouldn't be the greatest move for the integrity of that department) and Mike gets a good job thanks to a chance encounter with an old friend. But a teenagery desire for trouble seems to get in the way of any actual advancement. Only a few minutes of watching these characters tells you that they are probably lost causes.

Bale brings a scary intensity to his character but unlike the bad cop played by Denzel Washington in Training Day Bale's skillful playing of the part doesn't make it any more entertaining to watch or make us care any more for the character. In fact, by perfectly capturing a completely terrifying and unappealing personality Bale ensures that we won't want anything to do with him. D+

Rated R for lots of strong violence and even more gun-waving, language and drug use. Directed and written by David Ayer, Harsh Times is about two hours long and is distributed by MGM in wide release.

Amy Diaz