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Harsh Times

Powerful, If Flawed, Urban Drama

If anyone knows urban crime drama, it’s screenwriter David Ayer. Ayer has had no less than five screenplays produced (S.W.A.T., Dark Blue, Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, U-571). With his first film as a director, Ayer returns to the urban environment that gave moviegoers Training Day and Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-winning performance as a charismatic, ethically challenged undercover cop. Here’s the rub, however: Harsh Times was written almost ten years ago so, if anything, Training Day owes its success, at least in part, to the template Ayer created with the earlier Harsh Times.

The movie may not have a corrupt, ethically challenged cop as the central character, but it has the next best thing: a down-on-his luck ex-Army Ranger, Jim Davis (Christian Bale), desperate to get into law enforcement. Tightly wound, always on the verge of losing control, Davis suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. Davis’ best friend, Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez), may be marginally better off, but he’s jobless and his longtime girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), is quickly losing patience with Alonzo’s excuses. Dressed in a suit and tie and ready to hit the job market, Alonzo can't resist the irresistible temptation of getting stoned and drunk and causing general mischief with the deeply disturbed Davis.

As the week winds down, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calls Davis in for an interview. After a series of physical and psychological tests, Davis’ looks set to receive a job offer from the DHS, but when he gets it, the job offer has a catch, forcing him to choose between the law enforcement career he's always wanted and the Mexican woman, Marta (Tammy Trull), he hopes to marry. Mike’s fortunes are also on the upswing, but Davis’ self-destructive behavior and the proverbial "one last night" together before the two men return to a life of respectability, normality, and stability spells disaster for one or both men.

Not surprisingly, Training Day and Harsh Times share a similar setting and dynamic, focusing on two characters, one more dominant and experienced than the other, crime, gangbangers, and lots of dialogue-heavy scenes inside cars as they drive semi-purposely around L.A. Although Ayer cemented his reputation with Training Day, he wrote Harsh Times first and after multiple high-end screenwriting projects, he obtained financial support for his directorial debut, polishing off and updating a 10-year old script. Unfortunately, it’ll feel overly familiar for some moviegoers or like a draft or template for Training Day.

While Training Day was constructed around progressively implausible events, complications, and reversals that unfolded over a 24-hour time period, Harsh Times stretches that out by almost a week. On the plus side, the extra time makes the movie easier to believe but, on the minus side, it ends up unfocused, lacking a sense of urgency. Some scenes go on too long or feel repetitive (e.g., Davis' frequent rants). When the plot needs to move along, Davis suffers a convenient bout of migraine-inducing PTSD, complete with hallucinogenic flashbacks of Davis in combat. The PTSD device is used as a sympathy generator, but it's also obvious that Davis' problems began long before he joined the army.

Criticisms aside, Christian Bale gives another intensely focused performance as the nearly psychotic Davis. Bale seems to have a niche playing intensely focused, obsessive, and driven characters, traumatized by their pasts, compelled into self-destructive behaviors. Some, like Bruce Wayne/Batman, turn that self-destructive behavior into something productive, if outside the law. Others, like the lead character in The Machinist and now Jim Davis are already too far gone when we meet them, incapable of self-awareness or limited self-awareness necessary to escape their pasts. Freddy Rodríguez carries the more reserved, beta male to Davis’ alpha male; Mike, excels in the more contemplative moments between the two characters.

Strong performances, however, won’t be enough to make moviegoers forget the obvious similarities between Harsh Times and Training Day, ignore the overlong running time, or the lack of originality and novelty story wise. It’s too bad, though, since Ayer has an ear for urban dialogue and dramatic conflict. More importantly, Ayer has a knack for creating credible, lived-in worlds and the flawed, complex characters that try to make their way through them, with redemption a seemingly unreachable goal.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars