When Christmas rolls around this year, I’m hoping Christian Bale gets filmmaker Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) a nice fruit basket or maybe some slipper socks, because if it weren’t for Nolan, Bale’s career would likely be toiling in obscurity right about now. That isn’t to say that Bale is a bad actor — far from it. Instead, he just seems to have a habit of picking roles in mediocre films. Look at American Psycho (2000), for instance, a movie that felt more like a greatest hits of Brett Eastman Ellis’ source novel than anything else, where Bale carried the entire proceedings. Or The Machinist (2004), a film that ended up being nothing more than a rehash of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), and for which Bale shed a reported 60 pounds. With Harsh Times (a movie that has apparently been sitting on the shelf since last year), this is what you get: an occasionally strong performance by Bale in a movie that never really stands out on its own.
The film marks the directorial debut of David Ayer, the writer of Training Day (2001). Of course, whenever this is mentioned in the marketing campaign, no one seems to bring up the fact that he also wrote S.W.A.T. (2003), The Fast and the Furious (2001) and the Jon Bon Jovi war epic U-571 (2000). Harsh Times itself is more or less a variant on Training Day, with full-grown frat boys substituting for cops, and a little bit of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) thrown in.
The film has no real plot, but more or less follows Bale in the role of Jim Davis (no, not the creator of Garfield), a recently discharged Army Ranger, and his buddy Mike (Freddy Rodriguez, Lady in the Water). Seeing as how Jim has a few screws loose after serving in Afghanistan, the duo seem to find themselves dealing in the shadier aspects of society, like robbery and for most of the movie, trying to sell a stolen gun, mixed in with other acts of machismo (there’s more driving around and drinking beer than a Larry Brown novel).
The film almost works as a character study, but there are a couple of problems. The majority of the movie just looks drab: Ayer has no personal style other than using a whole lot of close-ups, tinting everything red and adding squiggly lines whenever Jim starts to lose it. More problematic, and unfortunate, is Bale’s uneven performance. On occasion, he’s able to show the misanthropic, violent Jim in a realistic, almost sympathetic light. Other times, however, he doesn’t seem able to get a grasp on the gansta speak (consisting of a lot of “dawgs” and “bros”) that he’s been given, making the entire role feel miscast and awkward. It’s too much of Bale trying to be the character rather than just playing him. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has a much better handle on what he’s doing.
The film could maybe be viewed as a commentary on the effects of combat, or maybe even a look into what happens when you refuse maturity and responsibility, but this is probably giving the film too much credit. Rated R for strong violence, language and drug use.
– reviewed by Justin Souther