Running and Gunning
Harsh Times is something of a blunt instrument. Its protagonist is a brutal, distraught Gulf war veteran whose particular skills—essentially, killing people—don’t seem, at first to be of much use back in the world. Angry, exhausted, and plagued by nightmares, Jim (Christian Bale) first appears looking relaxed, even serene, smoking a cigarette amid combat chaos. He’s found a strange peace, dreaming of his former violent life. But not for long.
When Jim, in his dream, tosses a grenade, the proverbial hell breaks loose, such surrounding him with blood, noise, and skeletal specters. He wakes with a start, another gnarly movie veteran troubled by his traumatic past. But Jim’s pathology is not individual, and it’s not only a function of his wartime trauma. His immersion in aggressive, macho-man culture is longstanding, having grown up in South Central, where he learned to hang tough with the cholos. Post-high school, he found another gang, the military, where his aggression was rewarded with the chance to kill anyone deemed “unfriendly.”
Returned home, Jim sees most everyone as unfriendly, save for his Mexican girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull). She lives just over the border, her shabby shack a small haven. Here Jim speaks Spanish, eats tortillas, accepts Marta’s devotion, and his heartbeat slows, briefly. He wakes from his nightmare at her place, soothed by her, able to see in her eyes another way to be.
But he’s got to go back. Within minutes, he’s roaring back to L.A., where the film turns into an inverse version of Training Day (which was written by this film’s writer-director David Ayer). This time the white kid is the obvious monster, with Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) his eager sidekick. Together they pretend to be looking for work. Mike tells his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) he’s handing out resumes, while she heads to her office. She’s a lawyer, indicated by her tight skirts and imperious manner, which Jim challenges, in his limited, wholly predictable way: he ogles her behind and calls her a “bitch.”
Like delinquents skipping school, they tell Sylvia they’ll be looking for work. “I gotta find a job,” Mike whines to Jim, “and placate my baby.” “Yeah,” commiserates Jim, “Or she’s gonna kick your ass.” And with that, Jim tosses Mike’s resumes out the car window and they head off in search of adventure, that is, girls, guns, and drugs. Their first, unimaginative, stop is a convenience store, where they buy a couple of 40s and a couple of smokes, literally. When the clerk won’t sell him two cigarettes, Jim looks close to exploding, but then he doesn’t have to. When punks attempt to rob the store, the clerk pulls out his gun. Suddenly, he’s worried that Jim and Mike—dressed in dark suits with ties—might be authorities and he might be in trouble.
The movie is full of such moments, when the boys look about to be busted, but a quick turn of fortune repays their stupidity. They get by as long as they look the part, the more ferocious and reckless, the better. When Sylvia learns Jim has applied to the LAPD for a job, she’s horrified. He is scary in a generic way. A product of the low-income, hopeless “hood,” he’s absorbed the low expectations and cruelty (as well as a part white-boy, part Latino slang: his dialogue is peppered with salutations to his “dudes” and “eses”). And so he aims low, harassing an ex-girlfriend and maintaining his self-medicating high.
When Jim gets a call from Homeland Security, inviting him for the job interview he’s been hoping for, he’s first ecstatic, then worried when he realizes he has to pass a drug test. Not a problem, he figures, that a turkey baster full of vinegar can’t solve (he administers this treatment in the front seat of his car, with Mike looking on—a moment at once profoundly intimate and excruciating for both parties). As bad as Jim and Mike might wanna be, however, the film insists that their ugliness and mischief are only small-time compared to the havoc wreaked by socially approved bodies, from the cops to corporations to the government. Inside these hallowed institutions, Harsh Times shows, men swagger and commit crimes, under color of law and the approval of their fellows.
When his potential new boss (J.K. Simmons, who, for all his great work in diverse projects, will always be Vern, from Oz) at DHS sees Jim’s tendency to bully the other interviewees and cheat on the lie detector test, he believes he’s found the perfect macho man recruit. Ruthless, dedicated to any pledge he might take, and unafraid to hurt others, Jim calls himself a “soldier of the apocalypse,” in a moment that recalls at once Alonzo’s claim to greatness in Training Day, “King Kong ain’t got nothin’ on me,” and Travis Bickle’s complaint in Taxi Driver, that he is “God’s lonely man.” All this makes Jim an ideal gung-ho participant in the forever war against terror. DHS—here embodied by a shadowy man who’s looking for an appropriate member of his “team”—decides he’s suited for “running and gunning in the jungle” in Colombia, but really, any place where Jim can “fuck people up” will do.
Harsh Times is most often messy and aggressive: its yellowish light is abrasive, its handheld mobility and fast cuts insistent. And its method to make Jim an outsider in his own life is none too subtle: a white guy who hates being himself, a white guy cast among “others” he designates but also needs. Marta, Mike, the “homeboys,” and the new job in Colombia all set him off as white and hypermasculine, and yet he’s still feeling forlorn, still looking for acceptance. More symptomatic than distinctive, Jim is a sign of his times.