David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s high-octane corrupt-cop drama “Training Day” (which won Denzel Washington an Oscar, though he’d given far finer, though less histrionic, performances in other pictures), returns to the mean streets of Los Angeles in “Harsh Times,” which also serves as his directorial debut. Once more the story is about two men who scour L.A.’s dangerous neighborhoods in a series of episodes that combine suppressed hysteria and bursts of gruesome violence. But these aren’t cops; they’re high-strung (and often strung-out) buddies out looking–or at least claiming to look–for jobs.
The dominant figure is Jim Davis (Christian Bale), a volatile ex-Army Ranger who’s turned down for a position on the police force for, we’re told, psychological reasons (and, it would seem, good ones) but is treated as an exceptional candidate by the Department of Homeland Security, provided he can only find a way to conceal his pot use in the obligatory drug test. He easily persuades his weaker pal, Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodriguez), to cruise around and look for trouble rather than apply for jobs, even though Mike assures his girlfriend, a lawyer (Eva Longoria) that’s not how he and Jim are spending their days. (Indeed, the two regularly leave phony messages on the couple’s answering machine purporting to be interview invitations from places he’s visited to keep her content.)
What follows over the course of the next two hours is basically a record of Jim’s descent into self-destruction, with Mike along for the ride. It’s not a pretty sight, to be sure, but it’s one that, if supplied with some substantial emotional context, might have been powerful and instructive. Instead, though, we’re given so little information about either man–beyond the implication that Jim’s Iraq experience has damaged him (though we don’t know where he started from, psychologically)–that what’s left is just a take-it-as-it-is snapshot of a couple of stoked-up lowlifes, one of them prone to outbursts of rage and violence, out on the town. Presumably Ayer wants to use them to raise issues of male bonding and the difficulty of finding any source of stability in such a chaotic environment, but as he’s structured his script and directed things, any such concerns are lost in what’s little more than a frantic melee, dripping with cynicism and without much meaning behind it. (Even an interlude with Jim’s fiancé in Mexico explodes without warning.) Admittedly there’s supposed to be a certain wayward, mindless quality to the goings-on, but after awhile the loudness and randomness become oppressive, and the lack of substantive payoff hardly makes it seem a worthwhile ride.
Bale’s a fine actor, but he isn’t able to take us beneath Davis’ febrile, frenzied exterior to reveal what drives Jim. His work here exudes showiness without substance, which seems a desperate effort to conceal the emptiness of the character rather than an acting choice. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is personable enough, but as written Mike is just a bland foil to his partner. Everyone else in the cast plays second fiddle to the two stars, with Longoria wasted as completely as she was in “The Sentinel.”
Steve Mason’s cinematography gives “Harsh Times” the grubby, gritty look commonplace in such pictures of the urban underground, and Conrad Buff’s editing punches up the proceedings, though the result is more cheap energy than true intensity. By the time the picture screeches to a predictably cataclysmic conclusion, you’re going to feel more exhausted than exhilarated or enlightened. Like so many Hollywood movies nowadays, it takes off fast and rarely pauses along the way, but doesn’t manage to take you anywhere worth going.