Edgy screenwriter David Ayer makes his directorial debut with Harsh Times, an alternately tough and ridiculous thriller that's like an indie version of the Ayer-penned Training Day, with the same keen insights into Los Angeles street life and macho codes, but more of a low-to-the-ground, unsteady style. Christian Bale plays a Gulf War veteran who's supposed to be spending his days job-hunting with buddy Freddy Rodríguez. But since Bale's certain that he's got a job lined up with the LAPD, he keeps persuading Rodríguez to ditch his search and come along on epic benders that inevitably lead to fool's errands, like trying to sell stolen guns in a ghetto bar, or making an impromptu road trip to Mexico.
Harsh Times starts badly, with a lot of tough-guy posturing and dialogue cribbed from rap CDs, but then the movie becomes about tough-guy posturing, and the inherently corrupt nature of male bonding. On their own, Bale and Rodríguez might be responsible people, but Rodríguez is too weak-willed to resist Bale's "take a ride with me" charm, and Bale is too much of an egotist to restrain himself from showing off when his pal's around. Their chummy, can-you-top-this friendship escalates into delirium, and for a time, Ayer finds some of the comedy in a mutually parasitic relationship. Then the posturing stops, the toughness becomes real, and Harsh Times becomes genuinely frightening. For a few moments, anyway.
Ayer has a good sense of pace, but he doesn't have much control over Harsh Times' tone, which evolves too quickly into a lurid, forced, pulp pretender, just as overwrought as Training Day at its worst. And as a screenwriter, Ayer continues to fall into the trap of thinking excessive violence equals profound meaning. Harsh Times falls apart disastrously toward the end, as Bale discovers that he might not be suited for public service, and as Rodríguez learns that his Latin street-punk charm will only go so far with his high-toned wife Eva Longoria. Ayer gets lost in a maze of ironies, and has to bulldoze his way to an exit. For a while, Harsh Times is thrillingly hard to predict. By the end, it becomes all too easy.