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"HARSH TIMES"
(2006) (Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: While trying to adapt to life outside of the military, an intense ex-Army ranger becomes increasingly volatile, especially when things don't turn out as he hoped.
PLOT:
Jim Davis (CHRISTIAN BALE) is an honorably discharged, ex-Army ranger who's still haunted by nightmares of what he saw and did in the service. He also finds some peace and solace in his Mexican girlfriend, Marta (TAMMY TRULL), who he hopes to marry after bringing her back to the States once he gets a visa for her.

His main obstacle is that he doesn't have a job, although he wants to land one with the LAPD, a point that his best friend Mike Alonzo (FREDDY RODRIGUEZ) thinks is ironic since Jim is otherwise a law-breaking screw-up. Mike is also unemployed, much to the chagrin of his live-in lawyer girlfriend Sylvia (EVA LONGORIA) who rightly worries that he's out drinking and getting into trouble with Jim when he should be looking for a job.

When the LAPD turns him down, Jim starts to spiral out of control, leading to drinking, violence and more, dragging Mike along for the ride. Fueled by booze and drugs, Jim's volatility only gets worse, although he can turn on the charm and good manners when needed, such as when applying for a job with the Department of Homeland Security.

But when that results in him being forced to choose between Marta and a job that would utilize his specialized if lethal skills in a far-off country, he finds himself torn about what to do. That leads to him, Mike and their friend Toussant (CHAKA FORMAN) heading off to Mexico for what might be their last hurrah, unaware that Jim might snap at any moment and thus turn all of their lives upside down.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
"Harsh Times" is something of a blunt instrument. Its protagonist is a brutal, distraught Gulf war veteran whose particular skills -- essentially, killing people -- don't seem, at first, to be of much use back in the world. Angry, exhausted, and plagued by nightmares, Jim (Christian Bale) first appears looking relaxed, even serene, smoking a cigarette amid combat chaos. He's found a strange peace, dreaming of his former violent life. But not for long.

When Jim, in his dream, tosses a grenade, the proverbial hell breaks loose, surrounding him with blood, noise, and skeletal specters. He wakes with a start, another gnarly movie veteran troubled by his traumatic past.

However, Jim's pathology is not individual, and it's not only a function of his wartime trauma. His immersion in aggressive, macho-man culture is longstanding, having grown up in South Central, where he learned to hang tough with the cholos. Post-high school, he found another gang, the military, where his aggression was rewarded with the chance to kill anyone deemed "unfriendly."

Back in the States, Jim sees most everyone as unfriendly, save for his Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull). She lives just over the border, her shabby trailer a small haven. Here he speaks Spanish, eats tortillas, accepts Marta's devotion, and his heartbeat slows, briefly.

But almost as soon as you see him with Marta, Jim is roaring back to L.A. At this point, the film turns into something of an inverse version of "Training Day," written by this film's writer-director David Ayer. This time the white kid is the monster, with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) his eager sidekick.

Together, they pretend to be looking for work. Mike tells his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) he's handing out resumes, while she heads to her office. She's a lawyer, indicated by her tight skirts and imperious manner, which Jim challenges, in his limited, wholly predictable way -- he ogles her behind and calls her a "bitch."

When Jim tosses Mike's resumes out the car window, they decide to spend their day in search of adventure, that is, girls, guns, and drugs. Like kids skipping school, they fool Sylvia by leaving messages on her machine, pretending that Mike has callbacks for interviews. "I gotta find a job," whines Mike, "and placate my baby." "Yeah," commiserates Jim, "Or she's gonna kick your ass."

And with that, they head into a convenience store to buy a couple of 40s and a couple of smokes, literally. When the clerk won't sell him two cigarettes, Jim looks close to exploding, but then he doesn't have to. When shots are fired and a chase ensues outside the store, the clerk pulls out his gun. Suddenly, he's worried that Jim and Mike -- dressed in dark suits with ties -- might be authorities and he might be in trouble.

In fact, Jim has applied to the LAPD. And while he looks to be precisely the guy who should not have a badge (this image, says Sylvia, is her worst nightmare), he's repeatedly rewarded for his bad behavior. It's not that he's impressive when he robs or intimidates anyone, or even that he's able to keep self-control when he feels threatened or vulnerable.

But he fits in. A product of the low-income, hopeless, and mostly generic "hood," he's absorbed the low expectations and cruelty (as well as a part white-boy, part Latino slang -- his dialogue is peppered with salutations to his "dudes" and "eses"). And so he aims low, harassing an ex-girlfriend, and maintaining his self-medicating high.

When Jim gets a call from the government, inviting him for the job interview he's been hoping for, he's first ecstatic, then worried when he realizes he has to pass a drug test. No problem, he figures, that a turkey baster and some vinegar can't solve (he administers this treatment in the front seat of his car, with Mike looking on -- a moment at once profoundly intimate and excruciating for both parties).

As bad as Jim and Mike might want to be, however, the film insists that their ugliness and mischief are only small-time compared to the havoc wreaked by socially approved bodies, from the cops to corporations to the government. Inside these hallowed institutions, "Harsh Times" shows, men swagger and commit crimes, under color of law and the approval of their fellows.

When his potential new boss (J.K. Simmons) sees Jim's tendency to bully the other interviewees and cheat on the lie detector test, he believes he's found the perfect macho man recruit. Ruthless, dedicated to any pledge he might take, and unafraid to hurt others, Jim calls himself a "soldier of the apocalypse," in a moment that recalls at once Alonzo's claim to greatness in "Training Day," "King Kong ain't got nothin' on me," and Travis Bickle's complaint in "Taxi Driver," that he is "God's lonely man."

Not only does this make Jim an ideal participant in the endless war on drugs, it also suggests that he's addicted, ideally, which makes him the ideal for routing out criminals in Colombia. The film thus sets up all of Jim's confrontations and options in racially marked terms -- Marta, Mike, the "homeboys," and the new job all set him off as white and hyper-masculine, still feeling forlorn, still looking for acceptance. Though it doesn't pursue the point, the film at least notes the racism and sexism in the culture that made him. More symptomatic than distinctive, Jim is a sign of his times. "Harsh Times" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 24, 2006 / Posted November 10, 2006


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