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Originally published Friday, November 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Harsh Times": There's a reason it's not called "Happy Times"

Like a feature-length dramatization of a suicide note, David Ayer's "Harsh Times" appears to be aimed at gluttons for punishment. Audiences with entertainment in...

Special to The Seattle Times

Like a feature-length dramatization of a suicide note, David Ayer's "Harsh Times" appears to be aimed at gluttons for punishment. Audiences with entertainment in mind need not apply.

Intense and grueling and sporadically fascinating, it focuses on an angry Gulf War veteran, Jim Davis (Christian Bale), who is plagued by nightmares, screaming fits and a vague sense of being betrayed by the country that sent him into battle. Rejected by the Los Angeles Police Department, he teams up with his best friend, Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodríguez), who is also unemployed and at loose ends.

Their days together are spent drinking, smoking pot and driving recklessly enough to draw the attention of police. Mike's suspicious wife, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), a lawyer who got through school thanks to her husband's support, has no use for Jim. She sees him as a dangerous psychotic and a threat to her marriage, and it's impossible to argue with her interpretation of the situation.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Harsh Times," with Christian Bale, Freddy Rodríguez, Eva Longoria, Tammy Trull. Written and directed by David Ayer. 120 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, language and drug use. Several theaters.

Still, there's a bond between these guys, and it's easy to see why it frequently trumps Sylvia's pleas to behave sensibly. Ayer's script tells us that Jim wasn't such a mess before he went to war, that he even had charm and spirit, and Bale's performance as this tortured creature is complex enough to make us recognize his appeal to a longtime buddy.

Rodríguez, who became such an essential part of HBO's "Six Feet Under," has been mostly wasted in theatrical movies (he might as well have been a wedding-cake decoration in "Poseidon"), but he finally gets a chance to show what he can do as Mike. Sometimes on the verge of dumping Jim, sometimes seduced by his spontaneous rebelliousness, Mike can't free himself from the ties they established as children.

Ayer has addressed these kinds of relationships before. His script for "Training Day" helped win an Oscar for Denzel Washington (and a nomination for Ethan Hawke). He also co-wrote "The Fast and the Furious," a surprise box-office smash that put Paul Walker and Vin Diesel on the map.

Ayer makes his directing debut with "Harsh Times," which is so relentlessly grim that it occasionally goes over the top and invites derision. There are no light moments, no ironic or romantic touches — just a forced march to a conclusion that seems inevitable even in the opening scenes.

Fortunately, Ayer has the actors to make it watchable. Bale and Rodriguez make a compelling team, and they're ably supported by Longoria, Tammy Trull as Jim's devoted girlfriend ("I see you, not your deeds," she tells him), and J.K. Simmons and Michael Monks as Homeland Security agents who cynically offer Jim a job that's appropriate only for a half-mad war veteran.

John Hartl:

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