Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2005 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // January 13th, 2011
From the creator of Training Day.
Furious in tone and execution, Harsh Times is a nonstop rage fest of adrenaline and anger, like a South Central adaptation of Taxi Driver.
Jim (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight) returns to Los Angeles a Gulf War veteran frazzled and traumatized, anxious to join the police department, a job he feels is his destiny. The Los Angeles Police Department pass on his application and Jim is left without a purpose in his life -- or a way of bringing his Mexican paramour into the country. He channels his rage into partying and drug use with his longtime friend Mike (Freddy Rodríguez, Grindhouse). Throwing responsibility to the wind, the two tear up the streets looking for highs any way they can find them.
Suddenly, Jim gets an unexpected offer from the Department of Homeland Security: a black ops job utilizing his prodigious killing skills in South America. He takes the job and decides on one last hurrah with his friends, tearing their way through the dangerous streets of Los Angeles and into Mexico. However, Jim is dangerously unbalanced, and the thought of going back into war may be more than he can handle...
The first time I saw David Ayer's Harsh Times at the Toronto International Film Festival, I walked away from the screening perplexed. A self-aggrandizing and inflammatory exercise that dances a line between autobiographical nostalgia and the unabashed insanity of American Psycho, Harsh Times is a tough nut to crack. Now, watching the film five years later, the film has not mellowed with the passing of time. It is still as bat-crazy as ever.
On the surface, there's not a lot to love here. Harsh Times is a chauvinistic, brutal, unkind, traumatic, and totally improbable film. Two childhood friends throw off their responsibilities and tear up the streets, trying to sell an illegally acquired gun to buy drug money, fail to show up to job interviews, drink excessively, shake down the occasional gangster, and sneak off to Mexico. Jim, a shell-shocked ex-military fellow, is already so naturally unbalanced and psychotic sober that his descent into lunacy is a fait accompli. An unending exercise in bad decision making from start to finish, Harsh Times ends about as tragically as you might expect.
Lead actor Christian Bale turns out a ferocious performance as the tormented Jim, who alternates between three distinct personalities: a traumatized young man returned from the war and haunted by his experiences, a reckless and wild overgrown child refusing to grow up and accept responsibility for his life, and a sociopath. Bale effortlessly pulls off each with polished ease -- these are all roles he's played in other films previously -- and the end result is a terrifying persona, even scarier than some of his previous work as an on-screen monster. Freddy Rodríguez plays Mike, the reckless sidekick. While his performance is not as mesmerizing as his co-star, his natural enthusiasm brings a particular tragedy to bear on the role. Outside of Jim's influence, Mike would have a chance to make something of his life. In an early appearance in her career, Eva Longoria plays Mike's girlfriend, but doesn't get much screen time to make a strong impression.
So how do we justify the surreal depravity at play here? Is Harsh Times a social commentary? It might be, but Harsh Times is so furious with apoplectic rage that it loses any voice it might have had. Is it a self-indulgent nostalgia piece? Creator David Ayer says this is a film based on his recollections of growing up in Los Angeles and the characters are composites of real people he know. Is it a satire? It sure doesn't feel like one. It can't be an anti-war film, because it takes such a back seat to the rest of the narrative.
Harsh Times is urban alienation taken to the point of madness, an outpouring of anger and testosterone that explode all over the third reel. The biggest problem here is that the film feels incomplete, as if missing something vital, a depth of character and emotion present in other films like Training Day and Dark Blue -- or maybe it just misses having a point entirely. Credit goes to Christian Bale for his red-hot performance, who keeps the film rolling on sheer adrenaline when the plot strains all credulity.
Shot guerilla-style with a shoestring budget on Super 16, Harsh Times is a film fundamentally at odds with a Blu-Ray treatment, but the end result is surprisingly solid. While no amount of upscaling will scrub away the snowstorm-like graininess that permeates every frame, Harsh Times (Blu-Ray) looks decent on Blu-Ray. Black levels are weak, washed out by harsh fluorescents and low-lighting and a shifting color palate that runs between muted and saturated. Where you see the improvement is in the fidelity of small details; skin artifacts and hair follicles, the wrinkles of shirts all come through with much more clarity than its standard DVD counterpart.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is a monster. Beefy, heavy on bass, and loud as all get-out, the track slams out of speakers with every bullet and some excellent West Coast rap befitting the subject matter. Crank your sound system for this one. Dialogue is detailed and clean and environmental details are well-balanced.
For extras, we get a commentary track from writer/director David Ayer, some deleted scenes and a making-of featurette that runs about 30 minutes in length. Not a lot of material here, but what is present is solid. Ayer provides a factually detailed, if slightly subdued narrative, and the featurette contains lots of behind-the-scenes and interview footage.
Harsh Times is a film that begs for analysis, for an in-depth breakdown of its sequences and scenes. I chalk it up to an irrational need to understand and justify the film, to decipher the endless layers of anger and rage. There is a point to it, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is.
If you like your films lean, mean and thematically opaque, Harsh Times (Blu-Ray) is worth a look, if only to explore its darker recesses. If you don't like to endlessly analyze your films to death, be warned: it takes a special kind of jerk to really love a film this angry.
The jury is still out on this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes