Reviews

Harsh Times (2006)

Their suits make Jim and Mike look out of place and time, even as they are deeply and desperately immersed in their moment.


Harsh Times

Director: David Ayer
Cast: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Bauer Martinez Distribution
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-03-13
Website
Trailer
Jim does what Jim wants to do.

--David Ayer, commentary

Hey Jim, we should lose the monkey suits, dude.

--Mike (Freddy Rodriquez)

As self-identified "writer, producer and director" David Ayer observes the start of Harsh Times, he sounds impressed. And rightly so: not only are his actors topnotch -- Christian Bale as damaged Gulf war vet Jim and Freddy Rodríguez as his unemployed best friend Mike -- but the premise is sharp as well. As Ayer puts it, he's got the two guys looking for jobs in L.A., "and the great thing about that is it's a good excuse to put both main characters in suits driving around."

It's a small great thing, but it is, in fact, great. For the suits make Jim and Mike look out of place and time, even as they are deeply and desperately immersed in their moment. Ayer wrote the script in 1996, when, he says, he was "living a little bit the lifestyle the movie depicts, just a little bit, hanging out with my friends, lived in a bad neighborhood in L.A., running around, partying a lot, just kind of doing all the wrong things... I wanted to capture that and sort of create a study of friendship."

Complex, destructive, and durable, this friendship informs all the decisions Mike and Jim make, together and apart. And as the movie -- now out on DV with seven deleted scenes in addition to Ayers' intelligent commentary -- tracks their very bad couple of days, their decisions become increasingly reckless. Like delinquents skipping school, they tell Mike's wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) they're going to follow up on classifieds (as much as Mike deceives her, Ayers notes, they "really do love each other. She just wants the guy to grow up, she just wants him to be a man"). Still, it takes Jim about two seconds in that car, in their suits, to convince Mike to give up the search for the day.

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 -- in their suits -- 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 with a spate of galvanizing violence and then a break.

Then Jim learns that his most-hoped-for job option, the LAPD, has rejected his application. This rebuff only underlines his general malaise: his first scene in the film is a bad dream of the war (shot, notes Ayer, on a mini-DV through a military night-vision scope, to enhance the "nightmare effect"), and his waking leads him directly into his relentless present. He kisses his trailer-welling Mexican fiancée Marta (Tammy Trull), then leaves her in tears, headed back to the States for the job he won't get.

While Jim is angry and self-medicating, he's also more symptomatic than individual. His immersion in aggressive, macho-man culture is longstanding, not just a function of his tour in the Gulf, but also a continuation of his youth 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." In this environment, the film implies, Jim was appreciated. When he comes back, he's lost -- until he's rediscovered by Homeland security.

This is Harsh Times' kind of cosmic joke, that the department is impressed with exactly what LAPD turns down in Jim. Where the cops decide his "psych" profile is dangerous, the feds think he's just what they want. As Agent Richards (J.K. Simmons) puts it, some "important people have their eye on you." But even if DHS talked to "had only great things to say about you," well, his urinalysis shows signs of THC (this because he has spent weeks before high on everything he could get his hands on). The fact that he also screws up the polygraph, his score indicating "deception," is another story. Seated in a room with three shady guys in suits, Jim looks worried. Little does he know that deception is exactly what the job calls for, along with aggression, cruelty, and Spanish. They want him to run and gun among/against drug lords in Colombia. When he resists, saying he was planning to marry, the agents -- in harsh underlighting -- tell him to put it off. Ayer says, "So it's a choice between love and death."

Jim chooses death, thankful, he says, for the "opportunity." Again, as bad as Jim wants to be, the film insists that his ugliness and mischief is small-time compared to the havoc wreaked by socially approved bodies, from the cops to corporations to DHS. Inside these hallowed institutions, Harsh Times shows, men swagger and commit crimes, under color of law and the approval of their fellows. Ruthless, dedicated to any pledge he might take, and unafraid to hurt others, Jim calls himself a "soldier of the apocalypse." He's the supreme gung-ho participant in the forever war against terror. He wants to be in Colombia (though it could be anywhere). He wants to "whack people."

Harsh Times is messy and disturbing: 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. During a last meeting with Marta in Mexico, he's alarmed and she's unrelentingly open to his menace, embracing her own vulnerability even as Jim is wholly unable to handle it. "Jim's sort of like a lost soul right now," observes Ayers. He's also right on track, produced by years of training. Surrounded by people who don't look like him -- Marta, Mike, the "homeboys" he challenges and the dealer Toussant (Chaka Forman) he drags along to Mexico for a party night -- Mike is most odious by his whiteness. Pale, hard, and hypermasculine, he's still forlorn, still looking for acceptance. The film is a study of friendship failing. Less deviant than emblematic, Jim is a sign of his times.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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