Every modern war has its cinema of trauma: those numbed, scarred movies that channel the confused rage of the shell-shocked grunt. David Ayer’s directorial debut Harsh Times is at the vanguard of a genre set to boom when the troops come home from Iraq. It begins with no mercy. A crisp, green night vision captures US Army Ranger Jim Davis (Christian Bale) as he storms an Iraqi trench and shoots an unarmed, surrendering solider. It ends, two hours later, with a mercy killing under the sickly yellow glare of LA streetlamps. It’s a pay-off that goes light on the catharsis, but heavy on the horror.
What happens inbetween is more hash times than harsh times, as Davis and buddy Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) drive around the streets of LA ostensibly looking for work but mainly just getting wasted. Mike is hunting for anything that will pay enough money to keep his naggy girlfriend – Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria – off his back, while Davis is up for a job with the Department of Homeland Security. But until he starts fucking people up again for Uncle Sam, he’s on a mission to do it to himself first, cruising and boozing and ticking down to self-destruction.
While Ayer’s spec script for Training Day became a B-movie studio flick pumped up with badass vernacular and Dark Blue was a too-trite stab at racial meltdown, Harsh Times is the personal film the ex-Navy vet wanted to make for years. He re-mortgaged his house to fund it, cutting out the Hollywood suits who couldn’t stomach the studio rule-breaking climax. Bale has called it the “low-income” version of Training Day (which also explains why there’s no extras on the disc). Yet, although it has the same hustle and flow of ghetto lingo, Harsh Times features bigger monsters than Denzel’s bad lieutenant-lite. It’s a post-Baghdad Taxi Driver, with a provocative twist. Back in 1976 nobody wanted Travis Bickle in the Secret Service; 30 years later the War on Terror apparently welcomes psychos. If it weren’t for some bad luck, Davis would have been Homeland Security’s poster boy.
So is Bale our generation’s De Niro? Very possibly. The chameleon-like Brit-thesp hasn’t yet found his limits, morphing from superhero to cockney magician to psychotic vet with ease. Although he hung out with vets and homeboys to get the part down pat, Harsh Times lets Bale work out more than just his Method muscles. He plays the crucial moments of dark comedy beautifully: how many other actors could shove a turkey baster up their dick to blag a urine test (“That was... unpleasant”) or psych out his fellow Homeland Security applicants (“I see dumb people”) and still be believable as a whacked out nutjob? Bale owns this movie: cruising in his car, one hand on the wheel, seat in recline as he sips beer out of a Styrofoam cup. And when he finally delivers his killer line – “I’m a soldier of the apocalypse, man. I’ll be in a chopper door, gunning villagers and shit, killing chickens and dogs too. I don’t give a fuck” – you believe every word of it. The War on Terror has never looked so terrifying.