This is the directorial debut of David Ayer, writer of films like "Training Day," "S.W.A.T." and "Dark Blue," films for which the term "gritty" applies so aptly that a critic can actually lose his association membership for not using the word in his review.
Unfortunately, like so many other writers who are offered the directing chair, "Harsh Times" hardly seems the dream project Ayer has been hiding from the studios while waiting for the directing call to come. Instead, it's more like that hastily written screenplay he globbed together from past failures while simultaneously soiling his undies over the importance of making his new job work.
"Harsh Times" is "Falling Down" for the post-Iraq, Los Angeles military generation. What is "Falling Down" one might ask? Well, it was a Michael Douglas film from 1993 that nobody really remembers because it wasn't very good. In that film, Douglas sort of goes to war with the everyday world.
"Harsh Times" tries to be about three different things and doesn't focus in on its real message until too late in the film when most people in the audience have already begun text messaging their friends to come save them. First, it appears to be some kind of buddy movie with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) and Jim (Christian Bale) driving around, getting drunk and trying to recapture their lost youth.
It deals somewhat simplistically with issues of manhood in a way that reminds one of the film "Little Children." Jim and Mike can't seem to grow up. Mike lives with his girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), a pairing so unlikely as to inspire the same sort of quizzical exclamation one might make after getting one's foot run over by a truck. Sylvia, a lawyer, just wants Mike to get a job. Mike just wants to drive around with Jim and get drunk. It's an example of hot-chick-meets-loser syndrome that would have only been less believable had Mike been played by Woody Allen.
Jim dreams of getting a job with either the LAPD or Homeland Security. This would be fine except that Jim is psychotic, due in part to his experiences as a soldier in Iraq. Ayer only ever seems lukewarm about connecting any dots between Jim's war experience and his behavior since we never get a sense of him prior to Iraq. As far as we can tell, he's always been a little bit crazy.
Ayer has taken a dip in the intellectual pool without his water wings. The closer he gets to the deep end, the more he flails around and tries to avoid drowning. "Harsh Times" ends with a spasm that ties its story threads in a kind of gross little bow.
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