'Harsh Times'

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"Harsh Times," is almost a good, salty urban thriller.

With a lot of initial kick and attitude, writer-director David Ayertakes us on a violent, catastrophic ride down some of Los Angeles'meaner streets with a bunch of bad-mouthed but sometimes believablecharacters--headed by Christian Bale as near-psychotic Gulf War Rangervet Jim Davis and Freddy Rodriguez (of "Six Feet Under") as hislong-time sidekick, Mike.

Bale and Rodriguez are strong actors, and Jim and Mike are potentiallyjuicy characters: two high school buddies, who still like to cruisearound, fight, chase girls and get high. They're both looking for jobs;Jim, despite a propensity for psychopathic behavior, dreams of joiningthe LAPD. The scary thing is that, at the beginning of the story, wefeel he just might make it.

Instead, the ex-Ranger blows a drug test, and Ayer shoves them both ontoan express train to hell, plunging toward the dark side even after Mikegets a job and Jim gets recruited by the Department of Homeland Security( a nice, ironic touch). The pair--rolling along the streets, mixing itup with drug dealers and killers, making empty promises to Jim'sgirlfriend, Marta (Tammy Trull), in Mexico and Mike's wife, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), in L.A.--end up driving back and forth across the border onone last ill-advised party.

Ayer wrote 2001's "Training Day" a bad-cop-good-cop street thriller fullof spicy lines and gutter badinage for Oscar-winning Denzel Washingtonand Ethan Hawke--and the setup here is pretty similar. (Actually, "HarshTimes" was written first, a decade ago.) Bale is the tough,smart-talking bully who doesn't recognize limits (like Washington) andRodriguez is his better-balanced partner who does (like Hawke.) Thedialogue in both movies has a crackling, profane immediacy, and thecharacters and relationships are drenched in machismo, a bit likeTarantino filtered through Peckinpah. "Harsh Times"--which is aboutstaying young too long--is more personal-seeming than "Training Day."

But it's not as well made. I didn't find Rodriguez convincing as Mike;he seems too bright and sharp to get sucked in so often by his psychofriend. ("The craziest head I know," Mike half-admiringly calls hispal.) But Bale, going deep inside with Jim, sometimes blows you away.He's one actor who doesn't seem to have qualms or problems playingunsympathetic or repellent characters; he starved himself into a nearskeleton for "The Machinist," and most recently in "The Prestige," hewas another smug bully.

In "Harsh Times," Bale creates something closer to the most rotten guyhe's ever played, Patrick Bateman, the serial-killing Wall Street traderand rapist-murderer in "American Psycho." Despite Jim's (very)occasional likability, he's clearly a psychopath too, and Ayer almostseems to relish Jim's hair-trigger viciousness and virulent wisecracks.In the scenes where Jim and Mike mix it up with the dealers, we'reencouraged to enjoy and root for the guys' brashness and violentimpudence, even though Ayer is obviously setting up a pay-the-piperclimax for both of them.

But I couldn't buy the ending here, even though it's not the same oldmalarkey. (It's a different kind of malarkey.) Ambitious as it was, theclimax of "Harsh Times" seemed to fly right off the rails, just like theending of "Training Day." Perhaps Ayer, like his characters, is betterat getting people into trouble than getting them out.

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