From the truth-in-advertising department comes a film titled Harsh Times. At first blush, the directorial debut of screenwriter David Ayer plays it safe by following the formula of his script for the popular Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke vehicle Training Day: follow two men with guns—one clearly dangerous and one relatively benign—as they drive around Los Angeles and get into some serious trouble. The biggest difference is that Harsh Times employs an indie aesthetic to make its encyclopedic exploration of ugly human behavior that much more troublesome.
Training Day came off as justifiably pleased with its own adrenaline-junkie theatrics, while Harsh Times seems less eager to revel in its nasty business: drinking and driving, theft, road rage, trippy PTSD nightmares, and realistic shit-shooting amongst men. Perhaps the difference in style simply reflects a disparity in confidence between Antoine Fuqua and Ayer; nevertheless the latter holds interest by digging under the skin.
Christian Bale plays the alpha dog of Harsh Times: Jim Davis, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran living large in South Central. Jim cruises around town with his best buddy Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodríguez, in fine form), whose lawyer wife (Eva Longoria, mispronouncing "irrevocable") regards the friendship with skepticism and disdain. At the film's outset, Jim learns he's no longer eligible as a police-officer candidate, but—surprise!—the Feds want him instead, for the Department of Homeland Security. What ensues, with J.K. Simmons as a Federal top cop, leaves a satirical aftertaste.
On the series of tests that follow (piss, psychological, and lie-detector), Jim happily attempts to get an edge, even if it requires him to stick a turkey baster up his dick to get it. Like Training Day, Harsh Times is all about tests. "Love's about sacrifice," Jim tells Mike. "The only true measure of it." Of course, it's not Jim who will have to sacrifice to prove his love; it's everyone around him. He's the devil on Mike's shoulder, while Jim's girl—a sweet but horrifyingly deferential Mexican maiden—gets the brunt of her boyfriend's emotional damage.
Since slaughtering "hadjis" (read "Japs" or "gooks"), Jim's been damaged goods, his controlling personality increasingly defined by his losses of control. Ayer and a once-again remarkable Bale take care to keep the man human, allowing him a certain asshole charm and what he thinks, at least, are good intentions for his girlfriend and friend (though everything he does serves his own selfish interest).
In the end, Harsh Times may be little more than an exploitation picture, but we can't take comfort in this self-described "soldier of the Apocalypse" being cut from whole cloth. With our war effort stoking more men like him every day, it takes only a small leap of imagination to get from Jim Davis to GI Steven Green, the 21-year-old alleged rapist-murderer of an Iraqi family. Back on home turf, men like Jim are trying to unwind from something worse than a bad day at the office, and when he affirms, more than once, "I wanna get fucked up," you best believe it.