Usually a top young name combined with a recognizable name (or more accurately a recognizable body), brings a film that is somewhat underwhelming or even forgettable for all involved. In the case of Harsh Times, you’ve got Christian Bale, the latest Batman, and Eva Longoria, who stars in Desperate Housewives, appearing in a film about, well I’m not exactly sure.
Written and directed by David Ayer, Bale plays Jim, a former Army Ranger who is trying to find a job in law enforcement in Los Angeles. His friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez, Lady in the Water) is trying to get a job in the city, but they spend large portions of their days drinking and getting high, while lying to Mike’s girlfriend Sylvia (Longoria) about his job search.
Ayer is more than familiar with the urban environs of California, having written The Fast and The Furious and Training Day. In Jim, Bale plays a guy who constantly pushes the envelope on day to day life. He smokes marijuana before a urinalysis and drives large quantities of drugs across the border. But this personality carries a past, and it’s the things that he saw in Iraq that have made him crazy. Sylvia recognizes this and begs Mike to stay on the right side of things, away from Jim, but Mike is swayed to hang out with him based on what he can get away with.
I always equate Rodriguez as more of a comic figure playing things for yucks than anything else. But playing second fiddle, he’s capable without being too far fetched one way or another. Many people would seem to think that Bale and his Spanish inflection are a little bit comical, but he continues to take on a wide variety of roles alongside his Caped Crusader incarnation. He’s played a Wall Street homicidal murderer (American Psycho), an emaciated insomniac (The Machinist) and a German POW in Vietnam, eating bugs and getting dragged in the mud by an ox. He was the Executive Producer in this, and his role is equal parts powerful and immersive, and he continues to take on a variety of roles and do them all exceptionally well.
Performance aside though, because the film seems to mirror a lot of Training Day and other Los Angeles-set films, there wasn’t a lot in the story that I could relate to or really care about. The end of the film seems to even go towards that route too, albeit in a convoluted fashion. It could have been a lot better than it was, but it seemed to tackle quite a few things that have been done before.
A minor surprise here, as the film comes with a TrueHD soundtrack. This one was of the first films I watched after upgrading my speakers to Definitive Technology to the front and center channels, and I was pleased how the film played out. Dialogue is firmly in the center channel, surround panning is effective and balanced, although it’s not too active.
One of the few titles I’ve seen on HD-DVD that is presented with the MPEG-4 codec, this 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is average. Image clarity and sharpness are scant, black levels are a little bit inconsistent, and there’s not a real upgrade in picture quality from the presumed standard def version.
The main supplement on the disc is a commentary with Ayer. Ayer (whose last name translates to “yesterday” in Spanish) recalls his time on the production, and covers some of what was shot for the film. He discusses the background of some of the characters, along with how the actors approached their roles. He does spend a lot of time watching the film, but the track does bring a small enhancement to the film. From there, a making of look at the feature is next, an exclusive to the HD-DVD. At a little over twenty minutes, the piece is similar to nothing more than a handheld camera showing a lot of what occurred during the production, with stuff on and off the set mixed in with interview footage from the cast. The handheld footage shows scene rehearsals, along with the finished product. It also includes the usual cast thoughts about their director and each other too. It does meander into the usual stuff, but it’s shot on the gangster tip a little bit and is fairly decent. You’ve also got seven deleted scenes in anamorphic and 480p, but they’re mainly extended scenes from the theatrical cut that didn’t really add much to the film itself.
Harsh Times is decent from the novelty of seeing some people you know doing things that they normally wouldn’t be doing, but the story doesn’t carry much weight over two hours and falls flat at the end. The audio and video are average but nothing spectacular, and the extras are at least better than the standard def version of the disc. Rent it for the extras you don’t get there, but past that, I wouldn’t consider adding it to your library.