Unpleasantly grim and often nasty just to be nasty, writer-director David Ayer’s “Harsh Times” is more an ordeal than a movie.
Despite zealous, though excessive, performances by Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez, this disagreeable drama is a harsh time for viewers forced to watch two grown men wallow in the mean-streets ugliness of their stunted adolescence.
The presence of “Desperate Housewives” bombshell Eva Longoria doesn’t soften things a bit. In fact, she winds up a distraction, yanking you out of the story again and again to wonder why her smart, gorgeous, no-nonsense character clings to a relationship with one of these pathetic little men-children.
First-time director Ayer, the screenwriter of “Training Day,” used his teen years in South Central Los Angeles as inspiration for “Harsh Times,” which follows boyhood pals from the ’hood on a last debauched, violent fling before moving on to adult preoccupations.
Jim Davis (Bale) is a former Army Ranger back in South Central after a tour of duty in America’s war on terror. He’s thinking about settling down with his Mexican girlfriend (Tammy Trull) and dreams of landing a job with the L.A. police department or some other law-enforcement outfit, where he figures he essentially can be a thug with a badge, supplementing his income through graft.
Poster boy for the thin blue line he’s not. In fact, it’s clear almost from the outset that Jim’s a psycho, Ayer presenting a few vague flashbacks to the horrors his anti-hero experienced in war as a feeble explanation for why the guy’s such a nut case.
While awaiting word on his LAPD gig or his prospects as a federal operative with the Department of Homeland Security, Jim hangs out and cruises the streets looking for trouble with old buddy Mike (Rodriguez).
Attorney Sylvia (Longoria), slacker Mike’s longtime girlfriend, is on the lazy lout’s case about getting a job, going so far as to print up his resumes for him and provide him lunch money so he can make the rounds of potential employers.
Instead, Mike gets sucked by Jim back into the wicked ways of their youth. They guzzle beer, smoke pot, roll a gang of hoods at gunpoint and try to find a buyer for an expensive stolen pistol.
The action is ugly enough when Jim and Mike are just pulling petty crimes and kid stuff. As Ayer ratchets things up, Jim’s maniacal behavior becomes truly repugnant.
Ayer seems to be aiming for “A Clockwork Orange”-style satire with the notion that what makes Jim such a dangerous lunatic as a street tough also makes him a more credible candidate for federal law enforcement.
But there’s no insight or entertainment value in Jim’s path. He’s such a loathsome extreme of barbarity that you can only wonder why Mike sticks by him.
Likewise, what Sylvia’s doing with Mike is a mystery. She’s smart and capable, he’s clearly been a loser for a long time, and the little deceptions Mike pulls on her are so transparent that the relationship just looks absurd.
Bale and Rodriguez alternate between furious intensity and almost comic street patter. They don’t handle the lingo all that well, the “dawgs” and “homeys” that awkwardly punctuate their conversations turning laughable at times.
In the end, “Harsh Times” redeems itself a bit with a fairly powerful climax, though, like everything else in the movie, it’s overdone. And by then, you’d just as soon see everybody on the screen put out of their misery so you can go home.