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Movie review: 'Harsh Times'

Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel
Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez (background) star in "Harsh Times".

There are those who take the words written on the side of their police cruisers seriously -- "To protect and serve."

And then there are the testosterone junkies, the thugs, the guys who enjoyed "busting heads for the military," "just following orders" and the adrenaline rush they got from combat. They're a little too eager to sign up, a little too wise to "the system," a little too ready to manipulate it.

That's who Christian Bale plays in "Harsh Times," a gritty, nervous and somewhat amateurish amble through a couple of days on the rough side of L.A.

Buzzcut and bad-eyed, Bale's Jim Davis only wants to be a cop. He grew up in a world where he and his Latino pals knew more about the police than any other profession. Some of those running mates are now in the force.

And Jim -- wired, beer-buzzed and down to his last dime -- is dying to join them. Harsh times call for harsh men, and Jim is as harsh as they get. He can injure or kill without compunction. And he can turn on the disciplined, polished, polite military demeanor when he needs to. Six years in the Army Rangers gave him those skills. But the LAPD is leery of him.

So we follow Jim and his pal Mike (Freddy Rodriguez of "Poseidon") as they cruise the city in Jim's faux cop car, supposedly looking for jobs, but basically looking for that next beer, that next buzz, that next rush -- looking for trouble.

They rob dope dealers. They bully girlfriends and ex-girlfriends. They're both at a crossroads, close to something resembling success or happiness. Mike has only to straighten up so that lawyer-girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) will decide he's worth the trouble. Jim has a cross-border Mexican girlfriend he wants to marry.

But even as carrots are dangled in front of them, Jim's damaged, violent psyche (he has "Trash-Ghanistan" flashbacks) rears up and thwarts them.

He is the hero you root against. He's the very sort of guy you'd hope the police would avoid hiring. But when the Feds ID him as a possible recruit to covert drug war work, the fear that he'll actually be given a badge to go with the guns he is so quick to whip out rises up in the throat.

Writer-director David Ayer self-financed this picture, and at times it plays like a film school exercise. Endless scenes of the two guys riding along, venting and cursing and chugging beers play like acting class exercises, badly written ones at that.

The slang, the dozens of showy fist-bumps, the astonishing overuse of "dude" and "dawwwwg" betray an eagerness to hide a lack of street-sense and the missing chemistry and "history" between the two leads.

Not that it isn't funny. A friend tries to intervene and Jim won't hear it.

"Why don't you 12-step off?"

Jim's military years taught him how to fake a drug test, beat a polygraph and throw the job interviewer (J.K. Simmons) off the scent of the real Jim. Scary-funny.

Violence is everywhere in this world. A gun-sale that goes wrong, a boyfriend/ex-boyfriend feud that turns deadly, firearm accidents waiting to happen. Jim invites it, welcomes it and instigates it.

Ayer's destination, a study of a marginal personality and how he might be given power to make life-or-death decisions over civilians in our name by our government, is fascinating. But the slow, haphazard, buddy picture path he takes (think "Training Day," only inept) leaves "Harsh Times" in the ditch.

___

HARSH TIMES

2 stars (out of 5)

Cast: Christian Bale, Eva Longoria, Freddy Rodriguez

Director: David Ayer

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Rating: R for strong violence, language and drug use

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