Harsh Times (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Or, "It's Grim Up South Central Los Angeles, Part One". Christian Bale plays Jim, an Iraq war vet back in the hood, unemployed, suffering flashbacks and starting to feel the pressure; Freddy Rodriguez is his best friend Mike, striving to make good and please his upwardly mobile wife (Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives), but too weak to resist when his friend pushes him to kick back, drink some beers, smoke some weed and get into some minor criminal activity: it's Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? with drugs and guns.

David Ayer, making his directorial debut, is evidently in familiar territory (he also wrote Training Day, in which Denzel Washington put on a showy turn as a corrupt LA cop playing Mephistopheles to Ethan Hawke's straight-arrow recruit). Sociologically, it's fascinating: the main characters move in a culture of violence, prestige and casual sex; but their language swerves from street slang to jobseeker officialese and back again, and the expectation is that you grow up, clean up your act, get a job and get married.

Ayer shows some neat satirical flashes - Jim is rejected on psychological grounds by the LAPD, but finds that no bar to the chance of a career with the Department of Homeland Security: "We're all a little goofy round here," one of the bosses tells him. But the characters are full of holes and inconsistencies, and after 90 minutes of impending doom, the final crisis feels forced; Jim's post-traumatic stress seems a scriptwriter's way out of a hole rather than a genuine psychological condition. Fine acting, though; and Jim's wince-making method of faking a urine test won't slip my mind in a hurry.

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