Judge David Johnson has had some harsh times in his life. Interestingly enough, they all had to do with jellyfish.
Our review of Harsh Times (Blu-Ray), published January 13th, 2011, is also available.
The feel-good movie of the year. If you're a masochist.
Facts of the Case
Christian Bale (The Prestige) takes the lead as Jim Davis, a former Army Ranger just returned stateside to Los Angeles. He plans to enter the LAPD and make it big as a police officer of questionable moral intent, but his schemes are nixed when the cops deny his application, citing psychological reasons.
The police are astute, because Jim is @#$%-ed up in the head. Even his closest friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), who's usually the first to cover for him, sense that all is not right in Jim's cerebral cortex. The times they do get harsher when Jim grapples with his rejection from the LAPD and the fallout that accompanies it, including a halt on his plans to marry his Mexican girlfriend, the cryptic job offer from a clandestine and violent branch of Homeland Security and the toll it all takes on his already fragile mind.
The people behind marketing Harsh Times want you to think it's Training Day, a film written by David Ayer, who wrote and directed this one. While there are some tonal similarities, the two films are entirely different. You should be aware of this before scooping up the DVD; the disc cover of Harsh Times makes it look like Christian Bale is a cop, grasping his gun, suit-clad and smacking around a perp. Nope, this flick is a full-on bout of street nihilism, a character study of a man who is circling the drain, inches away from succumbing to his own self-immolating psychosis.
Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser, huh?
Harsh Times is a downer of the first order, a slice-of-life experience where said life is depressing and morally bankrupt. Let me break it down for you this way: if you're looking for a good guy vs. bad guy street thriller with clearly defined moral characters, you have come to the wrong place.
What Harsh Times will offer you is an unnerving glance into the lives of two good friends, each seriously flawed in their own ways, lumbering through life in their own half-assed manner. As Ayer notes in his commentary track, the film is a study of friendship, and that's a good way to look at it. I'll take it one step further and call Harsh Times a coming-of-age story, though the main characters are all grown up, they have the emotional maturity of teenagers and their time together profoundly changes them. Jim and Mike and the occasional other friend that tags along with their exploits seek only to have a good time, elude the cops, duck and cover during gang fights, drink, smoke pot and maybe scam a little money when the opportunity presents itself. Getting legitimate, adult jobs and contributing to society is far from their minds, despite each friend's overwhelming need to do so; Jim needs a job because he's broke and wants to marry his girlfriend and get her across the border and Mike's wife, played by Eva Longoria, is constantly—and understandably—after him to make something of himself.
But Mike and Jim are each other's own worst influence. Jim's crazy, but Mike is too late in diagnosing his neuroses and ends up only enabling his friend's lunatic leanings and Mike, a recovering alcoholic, never haves the gall to stand up to his pal's peer pressure, this alienating his hot wife and risking a potentially decent life. It this relationship that drives the film, and Ayer succeeds in crafting a believable—and wholly depressing—caricature of two lifelong friends at a crossroads of their life, though they are hugely reluctant to bid farewell to the responsibility-free lifestyle they've enjoyed for so many years. Also tucked behind this subtext is a statement on what war can do to a person, but this never lands because there is no frame of reference for Jim prior to his experience on the battlefield. As a result, we just take him as a wacko who killed a bunch of guys overseas and internalized the rage.
Which brings us to Bale, the highlight of the film. The guy knows how to play insane and brings some serious gusto to the role of Jim. It's hard to believe he's an accomplished Welsh thespian after watching him so easily slip into "street degenerate mode." Jim is an unlikable a-hole is does little to elicit any sympathy during his time onscreen, and Bale injects his performance with an extra dose of the crazy eyes to elevate the character beyond a-hole status to something else entirely. A legend, Mr. Wayne. Well, not a legend, but a damn fine psychopath.
So is this flick worth seeing? I'd recommend it for Bale's blistering performance and the ghetto nihilism (providing you're in the mood for such joyless fare), but the haphazard nature of the plot and the lack of any characters to connect to hurt the experience for me. I can objectively say the film is well-made and the performances are noteworthy, but I stop short at considering myself entertained. And, worse, after the credits rolled and some heavy @#$% had happened, I felt very little. A film like this, I think you need to at least be stirred in some way or another, but I just left thinking: "Man, that was bleak. What's on BBC America?" None of the characters are likable and as a result I felt little or nothing towards them. So when their fates were rolled out, my emotional reaction was very close to nil, ultimately providing a somber, yet forgettable, way to spend 116 minutes.
The video transfer lives up the title's name. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is painted with harsh color tones, varying from bright and washed-out to dark and moribund. Jim occasionally flips out when his psychosis overtakes him and the screen shakes with a blast of yellow; it's a clichéd way to transmit tone, but effective. The film is light on action and dialogue-driven, so the 5.1 mix is fairly front-loaded, save for the aggressive score. David Ayer delivers a solid commentary track, relating how his own past influenced the film as well as the challenge of first-time directing. Deleted scenes and trailers round out the bonus materials.
What to expect from this film: grit, great acting and an efficient look into the dark sides of friendship. What not to expect: Training Day.
Excuse me while I open a vein.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Director's Commentary
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