Sunday, March 04, 2007

Harsh Times

The verdict: Gritty, dark, drama, that ends up being unnecessarily bleak for PCMR's taste, although Freddy Rodriguez is very good, and Christian Bale is frightening.

The rating: 6/10

David Ayer first attracted Hollywood attention on a large scale with his script for Training Day, the over-rated gritty cop drama that won Denzel Washington an Oscar. PCMR struggles sometimes to determine why some movies gain more critical praise than others, and Training Day is a case in point. I couldn't see what much of the critical furore was about with this movie. Despite two strong lead performances from Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, the movie itself was unsatisfying, and the last half hour in particular left me a little cold.

Aanyway, since when has PCMR’s voice influenced the machinations of Hollywood eh? Since Training Day, Ayer has written the excellent and criminally under-rated 'Dark Blue' (featuring one of PCMR’s favourites, 'Grindhouse' star Kurt Russell), and (ahem) the Colin Farrell auto-pilot vehicle 'S.W.A.T.'. But everyone needs a paycheck movie now and again right? Oh, did I mention that, before Training Day, Ayer also 'wrote' the screenplay for 'The Fast and the Furious'? Hmmm, perhaps Ayer’s resume means his box-office credentials are unshakable, but his soul may well reside in hell when judgement day comes. (Yikes! A little harsh, no? – Ed)

For his first foray into directing, Ayer helmed Harsh Times, a movie he also scripted, and with three big names filling the principal roles. Set in Los Angeles, Christian Bale plays Jim Davis, an Afghanistan war veteram with a desire to join the police force, and a pretty bad attitude. Also soon to star in Grindhouse, Freddy Rodriguez plays Mike Alonzo, Jim’s best mate, and a web designer who is also looking for work. Desperate Housewives' Eva Longoria plays love interest #1, Mike’s Lawyer girlfriend, who is supplying him with lunch money while he looks for a job.

We learn a lot about Bale’s character, Jim in the opening two scenes. He has been traumatized by his war experiences, is in love with his Mexican girlfriend and wants to join the police force so he can marry her and settle down. However, it becomes clear from early on that Jim has some 'unresolved issues' as Dr. Phil might say. Put another way, he’s basically a complete mentalist.

Ayer has set his movie in Los Angeles, and PCMR got the feeling that the film was based on the Cypress Hill song 'Insane in the Brain'. That song starts with a little sample of what sounds like a Hispanic gangster saying "who you tryin’ to get crazy with, ese? Don’t you know I’m loco!?" This quote essentially sums up Christian Bale in 'Harsh Times', and is an indication of the style of dialogue in the movie, set as it is in a principally Hispanic and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles.

This movie is from the 'Training Day' boilerplate, essentially two guys driving round a city with bad things happening. The premise is of Bale driving Rodriguez around while they look for work. Unfortunately, Bale gets refused from the police force quite early on in the movie, and the moment this news is revealed to him turns out to be his first moment of red mist. His response to this news is to 'get fucked up', so the two boys score some weed, get high, and then try to pull some birds. (Shouldn’t that be: "score some bee-atches, puto?" Ahem – Ed) Unfortunately, the very bad things start happening fairly early on in proceedings.

Christian Bale is excellent, as ever, in this movie. Unfortunately, rather than becoming a career-high performance, as Denzel enjoyed from Training Day, Bale’s character is really just an angry young man. We don’t learn too much about this guy before he went to the war, except from one friend who says he 'used to be mellow'. Rodriguez’s character, and performance are possibly more interesting however. All through the movie, Bale’s more easy-going companion marshals him and watches out for him, and the relationship is the core of this movie. Bale’s performance may attract the plaudits from this movie, but Rodriguez is genuinely good as well, in a more under-stated way. One could even argue that playing a psycho freaking out is easier than playing his buddy in the passenger seat, concerned for his friend’s mental health.

The movie is dark and gritty, set as it is on the streets of Los Angeles. However, it is a little bleak for me, and the last act in particular crosses the line into unreal territory that jars a little with the street realism that comes before. The two male leads are excellent however, and PCMR would argue that Bale has the presence and charisma to become one of the best in the very near future. Rodriguez too, makes a great claim for himself as a support player, and 'Grindhouse' should send him into the big leagues. Eva Longoria plays supportive girlfriend #1, and this role won’t exactly endear her to any feminist fans she may have gathered from Desperate Housewives. (Ummm… you haven’t seen the show then? – Ed)

Of note also is a great little supporting turn from Terry Crews, who also turned up in 'Idiocracy', playing the future president of the United States. Crews has a nice few minutes on-screen, and was excellent in 'Idiocracy' to boot. PCMR predicts big things for this guy, who you will most likely recognize as the father from 'Everybody Hates Chris'.

So, 'Harsh Times' is, well, a little harsh. I found it unnecessarily bleak, but thought the two leads were excellent. If you like your cop dramas dark, unsettling, and are a fan of A-list actors playing nut-jobs a la DeNiro in 'Taxi Driver', then Harsh Times may be for you. However, most of the audience may be a little unsettled by it’s misogyny, glib outlook on life, and hollow acts of senseless violence to consider it anything more than big-budget trashy entertainment. Christian Bale may have to choose his roles a little more carefully if he wants to leave behind a body of work to merit the investment he makes in his roles. (Although he got a lot back from this one, being the executive producer and all – Ed)

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