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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Harsh Times
Harsh Times
The Weinstein Company // R // March 13, 2007
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted March 3, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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In 10 Words or Less
What happens when a paid killer loses his job?

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: Christian Bale
Likes: Good character studies
Dislikes: Crime dramas
Hates: Movies without hope

The Movie
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 too clearly.

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 Quality
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
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.

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