Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Harsh Times Worth a Second Look
Writer and director (and sometimes producer) David Ayer debuted in the film industry writing films such as Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, and S.W.A.T. but he came into his own once he started directing and producing (as well as continuing to write) his own projects with End of Watch and Fury being two of his best. In the past couple of years, Ayer has produced and directed two big-budget films (Suicide Squad and Bright) in the past few years that received a negative critical reputation that audiences still seem to love (sequels for both are in development). The first film David Ayer produced, wrote, and directed that’s more in the vein of Training Day and End of Watch and is largely based on the individuals Ayer knew while living in South Central, Los Angeles is a little crime film called Harsh Times.
Jim Luther Davis (Christian Bale) seems like a normal guy that anyone could know. Now that he’s done his time as a soldier, it’s now his dream to become a cop in Los Angeles. Unfortunately though, Jim likes to spend most days drinking, smoking pot, and looking for ways to either get laid or kick the snot out of someone and his time as a soldier gets to him more than he lets on. He has nightmares every night and wakes up screaming with cold chills and is on the verge of downright insanity.
His best friend, Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez), has the intention of getting a job to make his wife happy but his drinking problem stands in the way of that. While Mike has his wife, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), Jim has his girlfriend, Marta (Tammy Trull), back in Mexico that he hopes to get across the border once he gets that dream job. One day, Jim gets a call from Homeland Security and Mike has an interview go surprisingly well at one of the best businesses in town; the two best friends think their lives are beginning to look up. However, Jim gets pushed too far and innocent people are suddenly caught in the crossfire.
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Harsh Times plays out like a song that becomes a sleeper hit or one that eventually evolves into one of your favorites; events unfold rather slowly but they’re also building towards a big finale. Once the ball gets rolling, it’s inevitable to try and resist the mayhem that’s sure to ensue. Harsh Times may not be that appealing on the surface, but David Ayer has mastered the dynamic of two cops (one is usually Caucasian and the other is usually Hispanic or African American) set within a broken neighborhood. Watching Jim and Mike give into their vices and basically flush their dreams down the toilet by relishing the deteriorated reputation they’re known for is a riveting train wreck. Aside from Christian Bale’s outstanding performance, the real gem of the film lies within the last 20 minutes.
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Ayer typically aims to shock or catch you off guard with the finales of his crime films, but there’s also a scene involving Jim that is unexpected. It’s an intriguing scene that is spontaneous in nature, but it puts what Jim went through as a soldier into perspective. Jim is completely unfazed by what he puts himself through, but Mike seems to be physically traumatized by the whole ordeal. It seems rather unimportant as it’s occurring, but it’s also the most memorable sequence once the credits roll. Before Don’t Breathe came along in 2016, this was the worst way any Hollywood film ever utilized a turkey baster.
For several years, Christian Bale was known for dramatically changing his appearance and using a different accent in every project he was a part of. Watching Harsh Times after seeing Batman Begins (both films were released in 2005) for the first time allows you to appreciate Bale’s performance even more. Imagine Batman or even Bruce Wayne trying to say with a straight face, “Yeah, homie. That’s how we roll in these streets, dawg.” It seems implausible and almost otherworldly; it’s a transition you never expected Bale to make. The transformation of the Jim Luther Davis character is incredible. The film’s editing when Jim is going through one of his episodes is an admirable nod to how unstable he is. Once the screen has that yellow tint to it, you know something detrimental is about to go down.
Harsh Times has a reputation for being slow and boring, but it’s worth a watch especially if you’re a fan of David Ayer films. The crime film may not appeal to everyone, but it probably has a lot more to offer than anyone gives it credit for. Christian Bale has a particularly strong performance in the film that deserves to behold and the intense finale should make up for any slow or dragging sequences. If you’re watching the film for the first time, try giving it a chance when you know you have a more patient mentality. You may be pleasantly surprised with Harsh Times.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Chris Sawin