If Harsh Times didn't have the intense Christian Bale, we would have been far more harsh on it.
Jim Davis (Bale) is an Afghanistan War veteran who still dreams of night vision combat. He seems to find comfort in his Mexican girlfriend, but he goes back to L.A. to hang with his "homie," Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). Mike in turn is married to the lovely Sylvia (Eva Longoria), a successful lawyer who wants her man to find a purpose in life, too--or at least a paycheck. Jim thinks the easy ticket will be a law enforcement job, so he can take care of both of them, but he's rejected. So the duo hit their old haunts, stealing drugs, getting high and faking phone calls from prospective employers. But they've got to do a quick come down after Jim gets a call from the Department of Homeland Security. The fact he's already smoked up will not bode well for the urine test. Still, Jim finds a way to slip through, because this job is more than a power trip for Jim. It could allow him to bring his girlfriend to the U.S. and marry her. Nothing goes exactly as planned, though. Mike must choose between his dangerous friend and his loving, stable girl, while Jim must survive his past to have any chance at a future.
If Christian Bale is starring in an indie, you know he going to be at least slightly psycho--American Psycho, The Machinist, to name a few. Few could make Jim as realistic as he does. Denzel Washington successfully does a charismatic street tough in Training Day, but the British Bale has the manner and language down. When he says homie and other less printable slang, it sounds like he knows how to use it, carrying himself like the pompous gangsta. He's scary, seems unstoppable and you actually may want him to meet his end. Rodriguez plays Mike like a naïve man-child, going along with his buddy despite evidence that it's not in his best interest. It's the less showy part so it's hard to compare, but you always believe him in the role. Longoria has a truly thankless part, the totally normal one in a crazy world. The audience will relate and side with her, but the actress has no chance to show any crazy quirks. All the time, her Sylvia is so much classier, you wonder what the attraction ever was to Mike. Some supporting actors also stand out. J.K. Simmons does his authority thing as the Homeland Security recruiter, while Terry Crews is the most dimensional drug dealer seen in a while. He'll do crime, but he admonishes the boys to respect their ladies.
Everyone will call Harsh Times gritty, but what does that mean? Is it because of the language and violence? That's a no-brainer in a crime story. Is it because the film is all grainy? That makes it look like a home movie, but it doesn't make "Baby's First Bath" gritty. Is it because it's dimly lit? That's just hard to see, not gritty. Harsh Times is all those things, but the problem is, who wants to watch this? Director David Ayer does create a believable world of street life, but the plot ambles on. Two unredeemable guys get into trouble. They toke up but aren't funny about it. They fight and shoot people but for no reason. They amuse each other but their exploits are hardly cinematic. It's actually not all that entertaining of a world to visit, but it achieves the discomfort an audience would feel, like driving through the streets with their windows rolled up. Maybe that's the moral of the story, but honestly, we don't need a two-hour lecture; we already know.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.