It is a curious thing to watch Christian Bale now, having seen him all those years ago in Empire of the Sun play that fierce, hurt boy Jim Graham, whom no amount of deprivation seemed outwardly to wound, but who bled on the inside like the Spartan boy with his fox. The qualities of that boy’s character are usually to be found lurking in the parts that Christian Bale has played since — he has not radically altered our perception of him with, say, a string of romantic comedies.
He still seems untouchable, cold, frightening, and if not amoral (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho), then certainly a little bit weird (The Machinist). We suspect demons in his past (Batman Begins). He is intense, barbed, and doesn’t seem to care whether or not he is liked — in fact, he seems actively to discourage an audience from finding him in any way appealing by seeking out complex and savage characters and playing them with his hackles raised.
And here’s another one to add to the list. Jim David, whom Bale plays in Harsh Times, is a brutal, embittered ex-soldier existing on the brink of psychosis. He, like the other parts Bale has played, is the grown-up (if you can call it that) version of Jim in Empire of the Sun. That boy could have grown into this man, just as he could have grown into Batman or Bateman.
It’s a tough film about two men who aren’t quite as tough as they think. Jim has come back from a war (a Gulf war — the film was written a decade ago but is set in the present) and is looking for a job as a cop in the LAPD. He is filled with rage, inclined to freak out at the least provocation, delusional, haunted, plagued by horrific flashbacks and nightmares from his army experiences and a natural candidate, therefore, for government work of some description. Failing to get into the LAPD or the FBI, he is taken up by the fellows at Homeland Security (who are always looking for psychotic killing machines) who offer him a job in Colombia, killing ‘bad guys’ (in this case, drug traffickers). His aggression will have an unchecked outlet — it’s a guaranteed one-way ticket for his mental health. But Jim does have an alternative: he can give up being a dangerous lunatic with an addiction to violence, marry his adorable Mexican girlfriend, and live happily ever after.
Jim ponders his future while driving round South Central whacked out on weed and beer and chatting to his old schoolfriend, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). Mike should be trying to get a job — his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria) has asked him to grow up and start contributing — but Jim keeps luring Mike off the straight and narrow. Like two kids they deceive Sylvia by planting fake messages on her answerphone, making her believe that Mike is getting job interviews when in fact he’s upside-down in a bar. Mike is about to let one of life’s turning points float by, and Jim is struggling with his sanity — the phrase ‘borrowed time’ springs to mind at about this point in the picture, and sure enough everything soon starts to go spectacularly wrong for both men.
The borders of sanity are cluttered places, and the film feels appropriately cramped — all the rooms Jim occupies are too small for his rabid personality, and he seems about to burst out of his car (as he does at one point) and spill his rage all over the street. The film’s cheap and dirty look suits its tone, and I love to see the murky corners of LA rather than the jewelled city we see in studio pictures. The ‘on-the-hoof’ quality of the film-making is appropriate to its story: everything is unsettled, and violence is threatened at every moment.
It doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, I know. Nor does it sound particularly original, and, yes, it is a touch melodramatic. But it is good: it’s rough, and frightening, and intense, and upsetting, and it made me twitchy and a bit spooked-out afterwards. It’s reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder (though not as horrifying) and, dare I say it, of Taxi Driver. Without Christian Bale there would be no film at all — and that’s not to say that Freddy Rodriguez and Eva Longoria aren’t good, which they are — but Bale is extraordinary. He kept reminding me of Robert De Niro — you can see him thinking, you’ve no idea what he will do next, and he might do just about anything. His volatility is somehow mesmerising and repellent at the same time, but his madness is coherent. Even when he responds with hate and rage to a loving touch, it makes sense to us.