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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Harsh Times (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Harsh Times (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
The Weinstein Company // R // June 12, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 7, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The directorial debut from David Ayer doesn't veer too far from the screenplays he'd penned for such films as Dark Blue and Training Day, spending another couple of hours with a psychopath and an out-of-his-depth hero riding shotgun as they slip on pools of testosterone on the gritty streets of Los Angeles. Christian Bale stars as Jim Davis, who's not a cartoonist with a mediocre, long running comic strip but a veteran haunted by the memories of those he butchered in the Gulf. Having left the Army behind, on the brink of eviction, and in desperate need of gainful imployment to bring his Mexican fiancee across the border, Jim is hellbent on joining up with the L.A.P.D.

Jim may look hopelessly white but apparently spent the bulk of his life in a tightknit Latino community in East L.A., and he still pals around with Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez). Mike's also supposed to be out looking for a job, but Jim convinces him to just drive around aimlessly with him, snatching a dimebag from an inattentive dealer, guzzling bottles of malt liquor, and trying to unload a pistol he swiped from his ex-girlfriend's new flame.

Mike is really only half-looking for a job to get his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) off his back, so Jim buys him time by leaving fake callbacks on their answering machine. Sylvia sees a promise in Mike that he's determined to squander, and he shoots down what few glimmers of hope there are by deception and a booze-drenched road trip to Mexico. Virtually everyone in the movie quips about how unhinged Jim is, and underneath his couldn't-give-a-shit grin is a shattered mind unraveling to reveal a true psychosis. Sylvia's convinced that spending so much time around him is certain to get Mike killed, and as Harsh Times approaches its dark final act, it quickly becomes clear how right she is to worry.

Harsh Times is at its best when it focuses squarely on Mike and Jim as they're draped in sharp-looking suits and meandering around the less glamorous stretches of Los Angeles. Christian Bale brings his usual intensity to Jim, but it's deflated by ridiculous dialogue not all that many exceedingly white Welshmen can pull off. Try to picture Bale -- hell, or anyone -- convincingly delivering any of the following:
"That homie? Straight up pimp."
"I wanna get laid, yo."
"I'm gonna marry homegirl."
"Fuckin' stinks, homie! Yeah...laterz!"
Yikes. In fairness, Jim is repeatedly shown with almost unrecognizably different personas throughout the film, tailoring his speech and mannerisms to whoever he happens to be around at the moment. He's stiff and formal when presenting himself as a former Army Ranger to J.K. Simmons' Agent Marshall for a gig with the Department of Homeland Security, for example, but he slips back to a relaxed, faux-ghetto drawl the moment he steps outside; it could easily be argued that the reason Jim's manner of speaking sounds so forced and artificial is because that's exactly what it is. Regardless whether or not that posturing is deliberately unconvincing, Bale's dialogue is frequently a distraction. He is uniquely suited to play this sort of tortured, volatile character who's spiraling into madness, and it's hard to imagine much of anyone else who could contribute such an intense performance, at least when Bale stops gnawing on the scenery and eases up on the Limp Bizkit B-side dialogue.

Harsh Times hinges on Bale's chemistry with Freddy Rodriguez, and they're instantly believable as life-long friends. Rodriguez' performance is more restrained and believable, and even if his character isn't particularly deep -- pay lip service to doing right by Sylvia, raise some hell with Jim since he'd really rather do that anyway, and not regret it enough to avoid doing the exact same thing again the following day -- he's such a charismatic actor that he makes Mike look more substantial than he really is. Can I buy that such a directionless slacker could have a lawyer with Eva Longoria's looks hanging off his arm no matter how much history they have together? No, not really, but...hey, it's a movie.

The cast is really the best thing Harsh Times has going for it. The story is a chaotic mix of half-drawn ideas, and Ayer doesn't dig into these characters' heads nearly as far as I bet he intended. Harsh Times is thin and unfocused, and too many of the twists and turns in the plot read like Screenwriting 101. Ayer notes in the extras on this disc that he wrote the screenplay all the way back in 1996, shortly after finishing an early draft of Training Day, and too much of it feels like microwaved leftovers...ideas he couldn't incorporate into that script and were cobbled together into another movie with a similar dynamic.

That's not to say that Ayer doesn't touch on some interesting ground: a relationship between two men who fuel each other's self-destructive tendencies, training a soldier to kill and then dropping someone so adept at manipulating the system back into society, and the concept of the feds being attracted to Jim for the same reasons that repulsed the L.A.P.D. As Ayer notes in the disc's audio commentary, the Department of Homeland Security literally makes Jim choose between life and death. He's offered the chance to head to Colombia as a gun-toting D.H.S. agent with a mandate to kill, but doing so would require abandoning his dream of bringing his fiancee across the border and starting a family.

David Ayer comments elsewhere on this disc that Harsh Times was produced without any trace of studio meddling; he was receptive to others' input as filming was underway, but this was the movie he wanted to make. This is a case where some sort of filter may actually have been useful...to better realize some of Ayer's scattered ideas, to hammer out a tighter narrative, to add some dimension to the characters, to reign in the ridiculous dialogue, and to prop up the film's particularly clunky final act. There's a good movie in here somewhere, but at least for my money, Harsh Times isn't it.

Video: Harsh Times was shot primarily on Super 16 -- and I believe that may be a first for HD DVD -- with a bit of hand-cranked 35mm footage and even some night vision MiniDV tossed in for good measure. Super 16 can look phenomenal under the right circumstances, but Harsh Times's quick and dirty photography doesn't exactly make for high definition eye candy. The image is flat and grainy, and a fair number of shots are excessively soft to the point that they almost look out of focus. Black levels are frequently anemic, and some aliasing was also spotted in a dusky glimpse of power lines. Hues in the lifeless palette can vary drastically from shot to shot, and fleshtones never really look spot-on. Fine object detail is generally a marked improvement over what standard definition has to offer but isn't nearly in the same league as most of the recent theatrical releases on HD DVD. Harsh Times's gritty, rough-hewn cinematography translates about as well to HD DVD as it can, though, free of any visible wear or compression artifacts. I'm sure it's a considerable step up from the DVD, and just bear in mind that Harsh Times isn't exactly something you'll want to pull out to show off your home theater.

Audio: Harsh Times' lossless Dolby TrueHD audio fares much better. It's a particularly immersive mix, making extensive use of the rear channels and taking care to add in split surrounds and discrete effects when appropriate. With so much of the movie spent driving around Los Angeles, there are also quite a few pans from one channel to another. The gunshots and hip hop-heavy soundtrack are bolstered by a deep, devastatingly punchy low-frequency kick, with the only downside being that some of the film's dialogue occasionally winds up buried in the mix. Very impressive. A Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix, a Spanish stereo track, and optional English subtitles have also been provided.

Extras: The back of the case boasts that Harsh Times includes "exclusive HD content", and that's somewhat misleading. There is a twenty-five minute featurette that wasn't included on the domestic DVD release, but even though it's exclusive to this HD DVD, it's in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen as are all of the other extras on this disc.

It's almost a given anymore that a making-of featurette for any moderately recent movie is going to be a puff piece -- an extended trailer with lightweight, overly promotional talking head interviews -- but "The Making of Harsh Times" really does focus squarely on how the film was put together. It offers a very detailed look at the swift, brutal assault in the bar and the make-up effects involved, prepping Christian Bale for a street brawl and his training for the flashback in the Middle East, and following the shoot as the crew headed down south to Mexico. The comments from the cast are more insightful than usual, including one observation that writer/directors are more willing to diverge from the script than directors working off someone else's screenplay. I'd have thought it'd be the opposite. Echoing Jim's bilinguality, David Ayer is also shown giving direction in both English and Spanish. This is an above average making-of piece and is worth setting aside the time to watch.

There are also seven deleted scenes that in total run just under twelve minutes in length. These include a couple of extensions, such as Mike groaning about suffering through community service and Daryl explaining why he was arrested, as well as another scene with J.K. Simmons as Jim pisses in a cup, a clunky bit with Mike flipping out at a 'job interview' that's a blatant pyramid scheme, and Jim ranting about a governmental marijuana conspiracy. The material's uneven and much of it is better left on the cutting room floor, but there are some strong character moments in here too.

Rounding out the video-based extras is an extensive gallery of trailers and TV spots, including several in Spanish.

David Ayer wore a number of hats throughout the making of Harsh Times, and he brings to his audio commentary the best of what you'd hope for from a writer and director. Ayer touches on the challenges of a first-time director struggling with weather and the limited amount of time on-hand for such a low-budget shoot, and he also discusses Harsh Times from a writer's perspective, frequently touching on the movie's themes and noting some of the differences between the original screenplay and the final film. He describes Harsh Times as a sort of love letter to Los Angeles, and Ayer is particularly keen on pointing out exactly where in the city particular sequences were shot. Also of interest are some of the random notes about the production that Ayer lobs out, such as what the cast is smoking in place of actual weed and having to rent a gun from a Mexican cop since they couldn't exactly bring one across the border. Recommended.

Conclusion: Harsh Times is able to coast on the talents of its two leads, even if Christian Bale's not entirely convincing as a slang-slinging faux-Latino. It's left to the cast to buoy this thin, uneven, and, for anyone who's caught some of David Ayer' other films, somewhat familiar story. Harsh Times plays at least in part like a rawer, unpolished version of Training Day, and this HD DVD might be worth a rental as the second half of that double feature. Rent It.
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