Harsh Times is another one of those films without much of a plot, but instead follows the lives of the characters it features. It’s a life film, for the most part. Motivations are few and simple, characters are few, and there’s little in terms of a goal driving them forward. In this case, the characters have a goal in “getting a job,” but spend most of their time drinking, driving around the city (often at the same time), and swearing because they’re “gangsters” and that’s what gangsters do.
Or at least, one of them is a “gangster,” while his sidekick might actually be one. Our lead is Jim Davis (Christian Bale), someone who used to be in the army before being honorably discharged. He suffers from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which results in him having bad dreams and occasionally seeing things canted and with a yellow tinge. He begins the film in Mexico, as he has a girlfriend there (Tammy Trull). He speaks Spanish, and we later learn he can speak both Korean and “gangster” as well. He’s polite enough when in good company, but when he’s with other tough street-dudes, he adjusts his behavior accordingly.
For example, when he tries to apply for a job with Homeland Security, he’s “sir” this and “sir” that. Little do they know that his spare time is spent cruising around the city, beer in hand, robbing people he doesn’t like, selling guns and pot, and other unlawful things. It’s no wonder that he gets turned down when he applies to be a cop. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to hire a guy like this. Although they haven’t seen what we see over the course of the film.
Jim’s best friend is named Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). Mike has a significant other, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), who, unlike Jim’s girlfriend, lives in Los Angeles with her partner. For whatever reason, Mike doesn’t have a job, and Jim has decided to spend time driving Mike around and hand out resumes. Why? Because that’s an excuse to get wasted with your best buddy, that’s why! It’s so obvious now. Why try to get a job when you cruise around doing illegal things with your wants-to-be-a-cop friend who acts like a gangster when he’s around you.
Oh, and by “gangster,” I mean the one that ends with an “a” and is more or less slang. I’m not talking suits and mafia, as that would be too classy for a film like this. These are the drug dealers, the street thugs, and the other types of people who apparently live in the shady parts of Los Angeles. Shady people like Terry Crews, apparently, as he makes what amounts to little more than a cameo appearance that I found to be absolutely hilarious.
There are a few things to take from this film. First is that PTSD is a serious thing and that if you suffer from it, getting help would probably be the best thing. Jim begins a decline from being mostly sane to, well, not as the film progresses, and watching this character go through the changes is interesting, even if most of it comes in the last twenty or so minutes and it ends up feeling quite rushed.
The second thing you can take from Harsh Times is that you can basically do whatever you want while in Los Angeles. To count the number of crimes that Jim and Mike commit would probably take up too much time, but suffice to say that there are many. There isn’t a lot of police presence, it would seem, and I liked to think that this was a film that wanted to critique the police system in America. Either that, or writer/director David Ayer just wanted to unleash a couple of mad character loose in a world that didn’t want to muster up the effort to deal with them. One of the two.
Another thing you can take away from the film is that you can make a film centered around a couple of unlikable characters if you make them interesting unlikable people. The final twenty or so minutes are a great example of this. It’s unfortunate that Harsh Times takes so long to figure that out and by the time it does, I had already lost a lot of interest. Obviously, the final moments of the film are supposed to wrap things up. That happens here, but it felt forced and rushed because nothing much happened before this point. Characters just did things that were largely unrelated to one another for most of the film, instead of having these actions lead up to the climax. It seems to come from out of nowhere because of this.
Since these earlier parts happens without much cause and effects, and because I didn’t care about our characters (they’re just driving around getting into trouble because that’s what they thought would be fun at the time), I was bored for most of the film. There needs to be something to keep us watching, and until the final portions of Harsh Times, there isn’t anything. It’s too bad, as this material could have been interesting (maybe as a documentary), but here it failed to engage me.
Harsh Times is a film that took an interesting idea, but didn’t do anything with it until the film was close to its conclusion. There was nothing to hold my attention for most of its runtime, and instead, I was searching for something more interesting to do with my time. Like maybe hop down to L.A. and drive around while drunk, robbing people and even shooting some of them. Harsh Times has taught me that this is acceptable behavior down there. Let’s hope it’s not right.