But the downside of action movies is that all the action fails to be compelling if there's no plot to hang it on. Five years ago, writer David Ayer teamed up with director Antoine Fuqua to produce a perfect action film, Training Day, which had all the stupidity, thrills and violence of most action films, with a compelling, strongly directed narrative to hold it together.
This week, Ayers takes over the directing reins to produce what is apparently a rough draft for an early, rejected version of his previous film. Like Training Day, it takes place in a fantastic, crime-ridden underworld in Los Angeles, features two guys doing things they shouldn't be doing, and has dialogue that sounds like it was written by a 12-year-old with Tourette's syndrome. Only in place of the plot, it has a disconnected series of events which nonetheless turns out to be completely predictable.
Christian Bale stars as a collection of ticks and gangsta catchphrases that used to be a U.S. Army Ranger. Now back in the states after killing bad people, he seeks a job with the Los Angeles Police Department or any other organization that promotes violence against the darker-skinned.
Unfortunately, the LAPD decides they don't want him, because he's too crazy to even be in their Rampart division, so he and his pal Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) drive around the city looking for a plot.
As Jim, the deranged veteran, Bale seems to take most of his acting cues from pro wrestlers. But his character is a caricature, so, I guess, like a good soldier, he's only doing what he's been ordered to do. Rodriguez is much better, if actually playing someone who seems human instead of a robotic assemblage of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Marty Feldman is "better."
Mike is married to Sylvia (Eva Longoria), who just wants him to get a job. So he goes off each day with a stack of resumes and his homicidally psychopathic friend to try to find work. Unfortunately, to actually find work, he'd have to do something other than smoke dope and rob cholos, and that's not a sacrifice he's willing to make.
While "two guys driving around L.A. with a trunk full of guns" is pretty much the definition of a great film, in Harsh Times, the effect of the action is muted by the absence of a story or any good reason to care about the main characters. In Training Day, a sly plot lay behind every scene of someone's head turning into a glorious fountain of blood, and the film unfolded in a manner that made each succeeding scene more significant than the last.
In Harsh Times, Jim and Mike simply cause trouble while looking for work. Of course, they get in fights, and of course, the people they piss off in the first third reappear in the final section in exactly the way you'd expect, but there's no real connection. The reversals and reappearances are just accidental contrivances needed to create more violence.
And whereas in Training Day, the actors seemed like they were speaking their native language, in Harsh Times, they come across as well-educated suburbanites who've just spent the day reading The Hip Hop Gangsta Dictionary. They use a lot of street slang, but it's embedded in stiffly articulated sentences devoid of regional accents.
The worst bit is in the beginning, when Mike and Jim present all the backstory of the film in some tremendously stilted expository dialogue that's riddled with terms they apparently cribbed off the first Eminem record. Then they begin bumping fists, which they do repeatedly and with everyone they meet, all of whom are apparently named "dog."
Which isn't to say there's nothing good about Harsh Times. In one scene, Bale performs one of the most difficult acting moves: He makes faces while he inserts a turkey baster into his urethra. He really pulls this off. If there's an Academy Award for Grimacing Like Something Has Been Stuck Up Your Urethra, Bale's a lock for it.
Rodriguez is generally good throughout, as is bit player Terry Crews. The rest of the cast is a mixture of broad comedic absurdity and soap opera-esque overacting, but that alone isn't enough to sink a true action film.
The lack of meaningful action, though, is. Sure, we all want to see people shooting each other in the nutsacks, but we want to see them do this for a reason. Failing this, Harsh Times teaches a harsh lesson: Bullets, drugs and people saying "dog" are not enough to make a great film.