Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is a tweaked-out discharged Army Ranger who returns from the Gulf War to his childhood South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles to stir up trouble with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) in this devastating drama by writer/director David Ayer (screenwriter of Training Day). Jim's plans to marry his Mexican peasant girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) and bring her across the border are eclipsed by his desire to join the LAPD. Fate throws Jim a curveball after he's turned down to be a cop in the form of a Homeland Security job offer to work in Colombia as an anti-drug enforcer even as Bale's drugged-out character descends into a volatile madness that leaves a swath of destruction in its wake.
Since he was discovered by Steven Spielberg to play the young lead in Empire of the Sun (1987), Bale's already broad acting range has expanded to a place that few actors achieve over a lifetime of work. He is a commanding force of nature carrying the full moral weight of his tormented characters like an isolated atom full of speeding electrons in anticipation of being split into a mushroom cloud. He was quoted in Spin magazine as saying, "An actor should never be larger than the film he's in," and when you watch him you can understand why he's so concerned with not overpowering the narrative atmosphere that he inhabits. As a movie star, Bale is such a man of the world that he has no peer. He could just as easily play James Bond as he could the next President of the United States, Mexico or Russia.
The Gulf War robbed Jim Davis of his humanity, but he still feels phantom traces of his former innocence that evaporate whenever he attempts to communicate with people who knew him before the war. He has a gag reflex toward his innate personal nature. Jim's friend Mike is attempting to marry above his social class with his intelligent and attractive attorney girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria). But when Jim comes crashing back into Mike's life, Sylvia is painted as an obstacle blocking all aspects of liberty, loyalty and brotherhood. Jim derails Mike from his promised mission of finding employment by orchestrating phony job opportunities through fabricated phone messages designed to throw Sylvia off their trail of drugging and drinking. The recording of a fake telephone message provides one of the film's few humorous moments. A double standard is play as Jim actively pursues his own employment opportunities while relegating Mike to a captive sidekick.
You could make a case that Harsh Times is essentially the same story as Training Day, but there's far less Hollywood fantasy here. Both are powerful morality plays that share more than a few elements in common with Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The difference is that Harsh Times is a Bush-era story that applies specifically to the ways the Bush Administration repurposes the human wreckage it has created.
After failing a urine test while applying for a Homeland Security job, Jim wins over his put-off would-be employers by admitting that he smoked some pot in a fit of rebellious frustration. As it turns out, this combination of twitchy angst and humble honesty is just what the elite government boys are looking for to represent the country's overseas investments. Of course, Jim has been doing a good deal more than just smoking pot in an effort to block out the post-war trauma that increasingly turns his charismatic personality toward reckless violent acts.
A stomach churning double climax ratchets up the third act leading to a nearly unbearable level of latent and realized brutality. Like the final act of Taxi Driver, it is a shocking series of events that releases the drama's built-up tension like a brain surgeon cutting into a constricted skull.
It's necessarily bloody, but more importantly, it allows the audience to breathe again. We are left to wonder what future shocks await us outside of the cinema. Grade: A-