Harsh Times’ at Ridgemont High

By By Danny Letz

By Danny Letz

“Harsh Times”MGM PicturesWritten and Directed by David AyerStarring: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria, Tammy Trull, J.K. SimmonsOpens Nov. 10, 2006Rated R/119 minutesOne-and-a-half out of four stars

According to Aristotle’s Poetics, literature (or story-telling for that matter) will always trump history, as it can use fiction to portray truth. Often, fictionalizations portray more understanding and greater insight into the human condition than could be gleaned from a simple restating of facts or a die-hard adherence to perfect simulation.Another teaching from Poetics: Stories must have plots.The creators of “Harsh Times” would do well to learn these two lessons.Jim (Christian Bale) is a tormented, ex-Army ranger who is two degrees shy of flat-out loco. Honorably discharged from the service, Jim attempts to join the Los Angeles Police Department in order to marry and import his ladylove Marta (Tammy Trull) from Mexico. All seems to be going well until Jim fails the department’s psychiatric evaluation.Translation: Jim is one crazy guy.After failing, he takes his homie Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) along a path of self-destruction involving theft, vandalism and all-around drunken, smoke-infused chicanery. Jim exercises his rage on everything, from the man dating his ex to a Korean convenience clerk to Mike’s lawyer girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria).Jim’s a man who ain’t gotta take flak from nobody. His concerns now are living the good life of smoking hash, slapping hos and drinking forties. That is, until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers him a job.By this point, it’s hard to tell whether Bale’s chino-cum-guero-cum-cholo act is laughable simply because it is Christian Bale reading the dialogue, or if it’s just the dialogue itself. When Bale places a turkey baster full of contact solution into his?well?little chino–to pass a drug test, however, the question is put to rest.What remains of the film is little more than a series of events that repeatedly beg the question, “Why?” Why, if Jim is so excited to be a federal officer, is he equally excited to live the gangsta life in L.A.? It’s never made apparent–and neither are the any of the characters’ motivations during the remainder of the movie. The most well-rounded characters are portrayed in the sub-plots of Jim’s foil–Mike and his girlfriend. Yet even the sub-plots become tedious as they further ensnare and tangle the main focus of the movie-perhaps the biggest conundrum of them all, as it’s hard to tell what the focus is to begin with.Balance is never present in the film, nor are any glimpses of why anyone should care about Jim at all. He simply exists and does bad things. Big deal. When Jim finally does go 100 percent loco during the movie’s final scenes, it’s difficult to care and, in light of the movie’s previous 90 minutes, makes the entire work seem more like a parody than the gritty character study it attempts to be. David Ayer, master scribe of such memorable screenplays as “The Fast and The Furious,” “U-571” and “S.W.A.T.,” attempts something along the lines of his excellent portrayal of muddled moralism in “Training Day.” However, that film succeeded in making audiences care about its characters. This movie does not.Perhaps the portrayal carved in “Harsh Times” is accurate of ex-Army vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or ruffians living in South L.A. It’s tough to say. But what isn’t tough to say is that the film could succeed with the help of a plot. Then, stomaching the truth or fiction would come a lot easier.

“Yeah, you know. This is what we do. Smoke, cap butts and such. It’s a serene existence.” Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez pensively discuss in “Harsh Times.”