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MOVIE REVIEW

Bale is intense, but 'Harsh Times' still sinks

The best you can say about "Harsh Times" is that it dispels any doubt that Christian Bale can be a South Central homeboy. (You were wondering, weren't you?) He plays Jim Davis , an honorably discharged Army Ranger, back from Afghanistan and self-destructing all over the streets of Los Angeles.

The part requires him to shoot, smoke, and go bonkers, sometimes with a Chicano-flavored accent. It's a big performance, built for a tragedy that this badly conceived movie never achieves.

Jim is a wastrel with rigid military bearing and a nasty sense of humor. He's trying to get back on his feet, but when his application at the LAPD gets rejected, his already-simmering temper threatens, repeatedly, to boil over into violence. He spends his days driving around the neighborhood, drinking 40s , getting high, listening to N.W.A., and trying to unload a cache of stolen guns. (Terry Crews and Chaka Forman, as two stops on his journey, are good in small parts.)

His sidekick and enabler is Mike, an affable, equally jobless slacker, played with an insecure adolescent's devotion by Freddy Rodriguez. Mike is always threatening to leave Jim alone, but who else, besides his upwardly mobile girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria), would he hang out with?

Mike dutifully waits in the car while Jim darkens the doorstep of an ex and, later, against Sylvia's wishes, he tags along on a trip across the border to visit Jim's Mexican fiancee (movingly played by Tammy Trull ) . He's trying to keep his buddy in check, but no one can soothe Jim's rage, and the film implies that his traumatized, loose-cannon status might have its occupational advantages. The military may have sent him home, and the LAPD might have turned him down, but ironically, the Department of Homeland Security expresses cautious interest.

Written and directed by David Ayer, who also wrote the incredibly similar "Training Day," "Harsh Times" means for us to understand Jim's meltdowns as a side effect of his military service. (Often during his outbursts, the camerawork and editing start tripping.) But if the movie is a comment on the dire straits of our returning soldiers, it's unconvincing. Presumably, the military knows Jim is viciously unstable yet does nothing to save him -- or us -- from himself . Too much screen time is given over to street-silly scenes with Mexican gang bangers and druggies, and not enough to the conflict between Jim's unthinking nihilism and his compulsion to belong to some kind of governmental system.

You can tell it's just the violence that turns Ayer on as a filmmaker -- the movie's displays of brutality are what leave an impression, and any parallel between the war in Afghanistan and the war on the L A streets seems tenuous. But the real problem with "Harsh Times" is Jim himself. Bale goes at the part with his usual intensity, but the character still seems like a psycho without psychology or a soul.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. His blog is at boston.com/ae/movies/blog/.

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