- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Christian Bale is at it again.

The Welsh native, known for gaining muscle, losing weight and donning a Bat suit in his still-young career, slips into the skin of a wannabe cop in the abrasive “Harsh Times.”

Wouldn’t you know the actor looks just right as the tattooed rage-aholic who’s as ugly on the inside as the classically handsome lad is on the outside.

Writer-director David Ayer of “Training Day” fame gives Mr. Bale a tragic figure worthy of the actor’s chops. It’s not Mr. Bale’s fault that Mr. Ayer falls in love with the violence he means to diminish.

It’s another story of boys who won’t grow up, but this time the men in question down 40s and smoke blunts. They’re hip-hop hooligans who throw around terms like “respect” without stopping to think what they mean.

Mr. Bale is Jim Davis, an Iraq war veteran living near the Mexican border and hoping to get accepted into the Los Angeles Police Department. He has fallen hard for a Mexican woman he will bring north with him once he nails a full-time job.

Meanwhile, he pays a visit to his longtime bud — and fellow alcoholic — Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez). The two have been tight for years, but Mike’s serious, successful girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), is a perpetual buzz kill.

She wants Mike to get a job and leave his infantile behavior behind — but Jim is a force of nature, and Mike keeps getting caught up in his drunken adventures.

Besides, who would trudge around town passing out resumes when he could be drinking to excess in a smelly old car?

Jim’s feral magnetism makes falling under his spell a snap, but it also brings the pair close to confrontation wherever they roam.

By the final reel, plenty of blood has spilled, and you just know the torrent isn’t over.

Mr. Ayer, working from his own script, seems on the verge of saying something important throughout “Harsh Times,” but every time we feel primed to learn something — anything — he takes the easy way out, settling for a “boys will be boys” nihilism.

The spasms of violence are, at the least, convincing and ugly. Yet the lifestyle is given a certain glamorous cachet.

That’s a shame because Mr. Ayer’s ear for street language and mores seems rock-solid. His characters bristle with conflicted emotions even if our interest in their well-being eventually wanes.

You might not picture Mr. Bale as a reefer-fueled hood, but he’s such an instinctual actor that he makes Jim his own in just a few small scenes. Mr. Rodriguez gets lost in Mr. Bale’s shadow, and we sure aren’t buying his relationship with Sylvia. To the “Desperate Housewife’s” credit, her performance here overshadows her flimsy work in “The Sentinel,” released earlier this year.

The brutal, intoxicating “Harsh Times” will make audiences eager for a gulp of fresh air, but for Mr. Bale, it’s yet another excuse to flaunt his inexhaustible range.

**1/2

WHAT: “Harsh Times”

RATING: R (Sexual situations, violence, bloody imagery, adult language and drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by David Ayer. Original music by Graeme Revell.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: www.harshtimes.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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