Maybe I am simply not male enough to grasp the full appeal of the seedier parts of Los Angeles, but something about the great cruel fraternity of violence and honor and drugs proves irresistible to bullish young filmmakers. In Harsh Times, the latest film to make South Central L.A. its playground, screenwriter and first-time director David Ayer once again falls victim to these terribly masculine charms.
Jim (Christian Bale) is a vet of the first Gulf War, haunted by trippy dreams of the things he saw and did over there, and hanging on by the thinnest thread now that he's back. He talks a good game about the good times just ahead, when he will get a job with the LAPD, marry his Mexican girlfriend, and bring her across the border. In the meantime, with no job coming through, he spends his days tooling around South Central with his best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), sucking down astounding quantities of beer and running petty schemes to get money, drugs, and tail.
Mike is supposed to be spending his days looking for a job to placate his pretty lawyer girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria), who would rather have an equal than a deadbeat to support, but one flash of Jim's puppy dog eyes and the waggle of a beer can under his nose, and Mike is content to spend the day trying to sell stolen guns and smoking up. Jim is a bad influence, cocky in his schemes to outmaneuver the federal government into giving him a job or getting the upper hand on some petty gangbangers. He has clearly always been the appealingly unpredictable one, and everyone calls him crazy, though it becomes clear that this is less an affectionate nickname than a frighteningly accurate diagnosis. Jim is on a downward spiral, and his destruction is inevitable (though when it comes, it still feels a bit from nowhere).
The plot is fairly thin - just a couple of morally bankrupt guys reluctant to grow up - and if not predictable, certainly inexorable. It's all about the characters. If you are on board with these guys, if you like them, then you are in for the adventure, no matter how ill-advised it feels. Rodriguez nails his part, and straddles the line between the feckless petty hoodlum of his youth and a guy with the potential to get it together. He's a frustrating sort, without any sense of self-preservation or a discernable backbone, but he isn't without possibility.
Bale, on the other hand, is a more complicated case. The actor is undeniably talented, and he can compellingly play a gothic hero and an American psycho, so he can navigate Jim's psychosis and violence that hover, barely controlled, beneath his surface But no matter how uncouth and rough he is supposed to be, with Bale's unconscious polish, Jim comes off as a trust fund kid playing around in the ghetto. Though he is technically flawless and well acted, Jim nevertheless remains unconvincing.
Ayer is certainly fascinated with the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles (his previous scripts include Dark Blue, Training Day, S.W.A.T., and The Fast and the Furious) and he clearly likes to stick with what has worked. But somehow, he never captures the sound of ghetto-ese. The dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but it feels deliberate rather than organic, and the characters speak to one another with fond nicknames that presume a camaraderie that is only readily apparent in the final third, when the boys hook up with their old friend Toussant (Chaka Forman) for an unwise jaunt south of the border.
Of course, it is equally possible that if I only had more testosterone, I'd be looking to ride shotgun.