In 10 Words or Less
What happens when a paid killer loses his job?
Loves: Christian Bale
Likes: Good character studies
Dislikes: Crime dramas
Hates: Movies without hope
Not every film has to have a heroic lead and a happy ending. In fact,
some of my favorite films are either dark or depressing (The House of
Yes being one example.) But there are films that use dark as a
starting point and spiral down into a hellish world of hopelessness and
sap your will to go on. Harsh Times is one of those films.
Written before his hit film Training Day, but produced and
directed by David Ayer only last year, this film follows Jim (Christian
Bale), a bad kid from the barrios of Los Angeles, who found his calling
as a military man, mainly because he enjoys killing. He's back from his
stint in the Middle East, and he's looking to become part of the LAPD so
he can settle down and bring his girlfriend Marta over from Mexico.
Suffice to say, things don't go quite as planned, in large part because
Jim is psychotic and wholly self-destructive. Roaming the streets of
Los Angeles like a teenage punk with military training, he's drawn to
trouble like a magnet to steel. He's also dragging down his buddy Mike
(Freddie Rodriguez, "Six Feet Under"), who is a good guy, but a weak
spirit, who follows Jim despite his conscience. His girlfriend (Eva
Longoria) thinks he's looking for a job, but he's just hanging out with
a bad influence.
Watching Jim and Mike while away their time with drugs, violence and
women is an exercise in excess, but without the joy that normally
accompany such activities in . Instead of feeling like partying with the
guys, it's more like watching your friends circle the bowl before
they're flushed. There's nothing to really redeem their path, except
that it allows Bale to let loose, switching from military Jim to street
thug Jim to breaking-point Jim with schizophrenia that would be
frightening if you didn't know how good an actor Bale is.
Though the film is competently constructed, there's a sense that it
could have been about 30 minutes shorter than its current 1:56 length.
While its true that Jim's story is a cumulative one, building with each
twisted interaction, the entire Mexican storyline, which seems like an
attempt to humanize Jim, might have been lost without affecting the
overall film. Plus, the relationship between Rodriguez and Longoria's
characters is a bit stretched out, with each conflict spelled out a bit
Bale is the reason to watch this film, but Ayers script, which doesn't
let the screen stagnate for long, is loaded with action, and his
direction keeps things moving and looking good. The only problem here
might be the use of a visual effect to indicate Jim's mental state. It's
limited use makes it feel a bit out of place when it appears, giving it
a gimmicky feel. If it had been introduced in a more gradual way, like
something out of Fight Club, it might have worked better.
In the end, I'm not sure how this film can be entertaining, unless you
get your kicks from watching lives fall apart. Whereas
Trainspotting followed scumbags with the hope that they'd redeem
themselves, there's no hope here. It's pretty clear early on, that the
only direction anyone in Jim's life is moving is down.
A one-disc release, Harsh Times is packed in a standard keepcase.
The DVD has an animated anamorphic widescreen main menu offering options
to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out special
features. Language options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish
dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, while an English SDH subtitle track is joined
by closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is good, delivering the film's
distinctly different looks well. The image is, for the most part very
clean and crisp, with solid color, though there are spots that seem a
bit soft and dull (which could just be a style choice.) There are no
problems with dirt or damage, and there are no obvious digital artifacts
to be found.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is rather impressive, presenting the
dialogue cleanly and taking full advantage of the surround speakers to
create atmosphere and put the viewer in Jim's world. A strong music
soundtrack gets full support in the mix, loaded with strong bass and
plenty of power.
The extras start with an audio commentary by Ayer, who provides a well-balanced track that begins as a ride-along, and mixes technical notes, on-set stories and his own thoughts. It's not one of the most memorable tracks I've ever heard, but it delivers the ingredients you'd want in a commentary.
Seven deleted scenes, 13 minutes in all, are presented separately or all at once. These scenes fill in some gaps in the film where the editing choices trimmed things down. They serve as a nice supplement to the film, as the moments aren't crucial, but they do clear up a few things.
The last extra is a trailer gallery, which has the film's theatrical trailer, and nine TV spots, five in English and four in Spanish.
The Bottom Line
Christian Bale is probably the greatest actor working today, simply
because, no matter the character he portrays, he makes you want to watch
him work. That's certainly the case with Harsh Times, despite it
being a bit overlong, a bit nihilistic and very hard to embrace. If not
for Bale, and to a lesser degree Rodriguez and Longoria, it would be
tough to make it to the end of this dark film. The DVD looks good and
sounds great, and has a few extras that will be of interest to those who
enjoy the film, which is likely an audience looking to explore the black
heart of man and how bad choices can be the only choice.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.