Jim (Christian Bale) is an Iraq War vet unable to find the employment with the LAPD that was promised when he returned home. Angry and bitter, Jim hooks up with his friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), another vet bullied by his overbearing girlfriend (Eva Longoria), to find a job. Suited up, and with the whole day to play with, Jim and Mike head out on the streets, soon getting caught up in drug and weapon deals, job interviews, and assorted border havoc that keeps them from focusing in on their plans for friendship and the future.
Writer David Ayer found tremendous critical and box office success with his script for "Training Day." The gritty tale of corruption and ludicrous street justice put Ayer on the Hollywood map, so it's hard to blame the guy for trying to recreate the same magic in his directorial debut, "Harsh Times."
"Times" beats the same streets as "Training." Ayer knows the topography of Los Angeles like the back of his hand, and almost casually takes Jim and Mike on a tour of the criminal underbelly of the hellish city. "Times" glides effortlessly when it settles down to observe the slacker day of danger these two ex-soldiers are engaged in, throwing away their shot at employability in an effort to maintain a bond that is being erased by adulthood and responsibility.
Things turn ugly not only quickly, but constantly for Jim and Mike, and Ayer dreams up a consistent run of back alley mischief for the duo to navigate. The performances from Rodriguez and Bale help to nudge the tension, fear, and paranoia; that is, if you can swallow Bale as a slang-throwin', wannabe Mexican gangster. An incredibly versatile actor, Bale meets his performance limits with Jim, though the actor does achieve the necessary aggression and horror the character is defined by.
Ayer has leanings in the opening of the picture to explore Jim and Mike's troubles finding their psychological center after their tours in Iraq. Jim is consumed by the violence he inflicted during his time in the military, but all we get of this emotional crevasse are fleeting glimpses of his nightmares. Ayer bookends the picture with Jim's psychotic outbursts, and since the effort wasn't made to layer this extreme behavior throughout the picture, it renders this crucial character point moot. Jim's rage is so unattended by Ayer, the scenes slip into a feeling of screenplay mechanics, counteracting the slack, free-form appeal of the film.
"Harsh Times" certainly wins points for being a vivid evocation of Los Angeles criminal life; I only wish Ayer had stuck with the almost improvisational feeling of the film's midsection for the whole shebang. Only there does the claustrophobic threat come to life in ways Ayer is truly gifted at creating.