Our country is now entrenched deeply enough in an unpopular war that pop-culture references to it have become commonplace. Sure, the war against terrorism will one day have its classic cinematic translations (just as Vietnam had “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon”), but first there will be failed attempts. Case in point: writer-director David Ayer’s “Harsh Times,” a gritty, dark depiction of one war veteran’s personal destruction.
Christian Bale (“Batman Begins”) plays Jim, a hardcore kid from South Central who becomes an Army Ranger and ends up serving in the Iraq war. Jim’s street upbringing has already ill-equipped him for success in mainstream life, and his stint in the war only worsens his social isolation. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Jim is turned down for employment by the Los Angeles Police Department and then ironically heads in the opposite direction, returning instead to his original life of lawlessness. Along the way he drags old friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez, TV’s “Six Feet Under”) down with him, threatening the progress Mike and his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) had made in lifting themselves out of a delinquent life.
There’s no doubt life was unfair to Jim, but the film’s one achievement is reminding us that the greatest struggles in life are ones we bring upon ourselves. Thanks to the horrors he saw in the war, Jim has a mental disorder that costs him his LAPD opportunity. Owing to a childhood spent on the streets, he has a drug problem, which causes him to fail his drug test for a post in the Department of Homeland Security. But despite these personal drawbacks, he’s given a chance at a big-time position by the federal government – it is Jim’s own refusal to change that throws it all away.
The destruction of Jim’s spirit is a quiet, contemplative process in the film, and his final demise chillingly effective. But even the profound character testament in him is ruined by a simplistic and unperceptive narrative. After a shocking opening sequence, nothing significant happens to propel forward the story or its themes. Jim and Mike drive around, throwing their lives away, and all the movie can manage are a few hip-hop themed words of endearment to the human self. The plot itself is convoluted and unoriginal; no sequences develop on the ideas established by the ones that came before them.
It isn’t enough, now or ever, for a film to simply say, “The war messed up this poor guy and you have to feel sorry for him.” We the audience have to love the human side of that character to feel sorry for his destruction, but “Harsh Times” is in too much of a rush to conclude its winding plot to ever touch on anything more significant. Jim – despite another instinctive performance by a buzz-cut Bale – never rises above the level of a street thug and, to the audience, his death would actually be justified. Consequently, Bale’s clever grasp on a Chicano accent (proving once again his reputed linguistic prowess) is but an amusing gimmick.
Ayer does give Rodriguez a little more to work with. Balancing his criminal side for Jim with the clean-shaven glazing that Sylvia (herself a successful lawyer) insists upon, Mike has a lot more to lose than his reckless friend. We might feel a twinge of sorrow when Mike realizes the error in his ways (too late), but even this emotional spike is easy to ignore in a film that creates settings and characters so easy to despise.
1.5 of 5 stars