Before Harsh Times I would have sworn that there was no role that could trip up Christian Bale. He has made a brand-name-loving serial killer chillingly charming, given a playboy vigilante soul… hell, he even imbued the ridiculous dragon movie Reign of Fire with far more gravitas that it ever could have hoped for. But even he seems flummoxed by Harsh Times’ Jim Davis, ex-Army Ranger, wannabe cop, and homeboy from the dangerous streets of South Central Los Angeles.
Bale (The Prestige) simply looks itchily uncomfortable in Jim’s skin, saying things like “I’m gonna marry homegirl, import her ass” about his Mexican girlfriend — this is him being as gentle and gentlemanly as he can be — and cruising around town with nothing on his mind but getting into trouble. Not uncomfortable like he doesn’t understand Jim, but uncomfortable because there’s nothing in David Ayer’s script to let him — or us — understand him. You’ll hear that Ayer, who’s also making his directorial debut with Harsh Times, wrote the brilliant Training Day, but he also wrote S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious, neither of which is known for its profound psychological insight. And that’s the problem here: this is all about Jim, and there’s no there there. This is a character study that’s missing a character. Anyone looking for mindless nonstop gangsta action will be sorely disappointed in all the talkiness, but those who don’t mind talky as long as there’s something to say will feel even more cheated. Odd as it sounds, we know even less about Jim at the end of the film than we knew at the beginning.
There are possibilities, at least, that we can see for Jim, at first, as he returns home to L.A., honorably discharged from the Army and on the prowl for a job in law enforcement. We know from the get-go that he’s haunted by his Ranger experiences of killing terrorists during scary covert missions — nightmares are disturbing his sleep and flashbacks his waking hours. But he seems to find some comfort in his girlfriend, “homegirl” Marta (Tammy Trull), whom he crosses the border into Mexico to see. (What she sees in him is one great unanswered question, but she, unfortunately, is a standard movie trope: the “good” woman that the hero doesn’t deserve but somehow manages to hang onto anyway.) His job search isn’t going well, however, and out of frustration, he soon he falls into his old life of getting high and drunk and provoking his friendly neighborhood drug dealers and the gangbangers, just for fun — only this time around, he’s bringing down his best friend, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez: Lady in the Water, Poseidon), with him, even as Mike tries to go straight. (Mike has one of those inexplicably good women, too, Sylvia [Eva Longoria: The Sentinel], a lawyer who is making absurd demands on him, like: Get a job, you lazy bum.)
But the range of possibilities for Jim — and for our understanding of and sympathy for him — narrows as it gradually becomes clear that he is a terrifying screwup: his drug abuse is bad enough, but he’s also basically a sociopath who enjoys violence, enjoys terrorizing people, enjoys life only to the degree that it approximates courting suicide. Here’s the thing, though: Rangering isn’t what messed him up. The film makes it perfectly clear that he’s always been crazy. This isn’t a story about how a good man, or even an indifferent man, was driven right up to the edge of whatever by the insanity of the “war on terror” or by military service. Maybe growing up on these streets did it — but that’s never a factor in the equation that Ayer gives us.
“I’m a soldier of the apocalypse,” Jim says near the end, which sounds great — I’d love to see the film that line was swiped from. It’s probably horrifying. But all we have here is Jim, a thoroughly unpleasant enigma, and Mike, a thoroughly unpleasant idiot. Bale and Rodriguez are both terrific actors — Rodriguez in particular is woefully underappreciated in general — and they have fantastic chemistry together. But their efforts go to waste. If there’s a point to Ayer’s tale beyond “Those who live by the street die by the street,” so to speak, it’s lost in a mushy muddle that’s afraid to take a stand about men’s attitudes about themselves, about the lawlessness of entire sectors of our cities, about anything. If any of it rang true, this would be a dispiriting and depressing portrait of American manhood. Instead, it inspires only shrugs for its senseless depiction of American thuggery.