Harsh Times

2006, Movie, R, 120 mins


TRAINING DAY screenwriter David Ayer's directing debut is a flawed but fascinating contemporary crime drama featuring intense performances by Christian Bale and breakout star Freddy Rodriguez. After serving six years as an Army Ranger, 26-year-old Jim Davis (Bale) is back in South Central L.A. Waking up in cold sweats and seeing battlefield visions whenever he closes his eyes, Jim's obviously traumatized by what he saw and did while in "Trashcan-istahn," but he's bluffing his way along with macho bravado and hoping the U.S. government will make good on its guarantee to offer him a spot on the LAPD. Once gainfully employed, Jim plans on "importing" his Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull), who's currently living in a shanty slum across the border with her mother and younger sister. While waiting for the letter confirming that he's passed the LAPD's battery of physical and psychological tests, Jim tools around town with his best friend and blood brother, Mike (Rodriguez), a good-natured guy who's been out of work since his job was outsourced to India. As far as Mike's lawyer wife, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), is concerned, this reunion of old friends couldn't have come at a worse time. Sylvia has been trying to get Mike to stop drinking and drugging so he can land a job, and she knows Jim is more than a bad influence: He's a temperamental, stone-cold psycho. Sylvia's worst nightmare, that Jim will one day be given a badge and a gun, is averted the day Jim receives a letter from the City of Los Angeles informing him that he's "ineligible as a police-officer candidate." The news throws him into a day-long, self-destructive tailspin during which he downs a few bottles of malt liquor, steals a drug dealer's stash, smokes about a kilo of weed and robs money and guns from his ex-girlfriend's new gangster boyfriend. What's more, he drags poor Mike along for every fun-filled minute of it. But if the City of Los Angeles has no use for the skills Jim honed on the battlefields, then perhaps the federal government does — he could work as a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security. The only hitch is that taking the job means relocating to Colombia, far from the only two things in Jim's life that keep him remotely close to sanity: Marta and Freddy. Not every scene, particularly three key moments in the final, tragic act, works, but for a while one watches with rapt fascination as every disappointment in Jim's life unleashes yet a further dimension of his madness. Despite its flaws, the cumulative effect is powerful, and Ayer has something important to say about the ways in which the U.S. military seeks out, fosters and exploits a soldier's darkest impulses, but renders them unfit for civilian life and too psychotic for even the LAPD. With his ersatz-gangsta swagger, the once-again buff Bale gives it his all — he's got to be the most committed actor in Hollywood — but the real surprise here is Rodriguez, who has all the talent and charisma of a major star. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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