Thanks to Bruce Wayne, Patrick Bateman and that skinny bloke from The Machinist, Christian Bale is fast becoming the go-to guy for fucked-up loners. All of which makes him ideal casting for the showpiece role in David Ayer’s gritty look at misplaced rage and urban alienation, a companion piece to his Training Day and Dark Blue screenplays that offers a contemporary spin on such ’70s classics as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
You can certainly see elements of Travis Bickle in Bale’s character, a traumatised Gulf War vet lashing out in all directions as he struggles to contain his demons. A former Army Ranger so unhinged he can’t even get a job in the LAPD, Jim is a scarily charismatic ball of caged fury whose descent into dementia Bale charts with unflinching conviction. To his credit, though, the Welsh actor isn’t afraid to leaven the darkness with shafts of black humour. Indeed, the scene where Jim attempts to fool a Homeland Security urine test can’t help but recall Richard E Grant’s similar piss-taking antics in Withnail And I.
Unfortunately, the similarities don’t end there. For just as Paul McGann was forced to play second fiddle to his co-star’s grandstanding, so Freddy Rodriguez finds himself overshadowed in a bland good-guy role that requires him to be little more than a gullible foil. Even with Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria’s mould-breaking turn as his long-suffering girlfriend – mature, convincing and vividly dislocated from Wisteria Lane – the unbalanced result inevitably suffers whenever Bale is off-screen. Moreover, while the action is fast-paced throughout, the sheer amount of outlandish incident and implausible coincidence needed to keep the story in motion ultimately proves too hard to buy.
Though written before Training Day and Dark Blue, Harsh Times arrives in the wake of Antoine Fuqua and Ron Shelton’s superior efforts and has the inescapable feel of an early draft. As another reminder of Christian Bale’s prodigious talent, however, it succeeds with bracing impact.
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First-time director Ayer's inexperience behind the camera shows in an intermittently concussive drive down LA's mean streets.