This overwrought urban drama stars an adrenalized Christian Bale, who played one of the competitive prestidigitators in The Prestige.
Harsh Times has Bale's Jim, an unstable, haunted Gulf War veteran, taking it to the streets of L.A. and Mexico. The actor of American Psycho and The Machinist lets himself get really unhinged to make the part more interesting than the movie.
David Ayer, in his directorial debut, seems to have fashioned a hybrid of Taxi Driver and Training Day, which he scripted. From his writing here, there is plenty of unrighteous indignation and psychological estrangement on hand. And the dialogue sounds more stilted than it should be, given the characters' predicaments, perhaps to enliven the proceedings.
As it unfolds, Harsh Times isn't just about Jim, but about Jim and Mike (Freddy Rodriquez), who have rekindled their childhood friendship. Mike is led down a dangerous path by Jim instead of becoming gainfully employed.
A 9mm firearm from Mexican gangbangers figures into the storyline as well as the attraction of the Department of Homeland Security to Jim, battle-scarred as an Army Ranger.
Ayer is inculpated for not attempting any self-effacement on the inevitable path to destruction as was the case in Training Day. Still, the excesses there were mitigated by the compelling conviction of Denzel Washington. Bale making Jim act unconscionably or nasty doesn't have enough to overcome what seems interminable and too uneven for its own good. Eva Longoria (The Sentinel, "Desperate Housewives") is underused if one notices that her scenes with Rodriquez have some bite to them.
Maybe the inability to branch out from its potent prototypes proves most underwhelming, as coincidence is just too convenient, rather than dexterously locating its resolution. Yet, for how the male characters loathe view empathy, Bale has the volatile austerity to pump up Harsh Times which initially almost hones onto feeling like a dark comedy.