(Netflix Streaming, October 2018) The measure of great actors can often be seen at how they elevate standard material, and so we have Christian Bale single-handedly making Harsh Times a worthwhile watch. Well, OK, that may be overstating things. After all, this film is another one of writer/director David Ayer’s take on the seedier side of Los Angeles (his first as a director after a good run as a screenwriter) as it follows two young men, one of them a troubled combat veteran (Bale) as they attempt to do better with their lives. That’s easier said than done when jobs are scarce, police work isn’t for those with troubled pasts, and a tangled web of obligations holds down both men. As this wouldn’t be an Ayer film without tense gunplay and impossibly tragic choices, Harsh Times does not head in a happy direction—the third act becomes a dramatic ordeal to watch. Interestingly enough, the film has gained a bit of sustained attention in the decade-or-so since its direct-to-DVD release: the star power of Ayer and Bale (and Eva Longoria, here with a thankless role as a girlfriend trying to bring her husband back to respectability) have ensured that the film continues to get attention today. The uneasy mix of graphic violence and emotionally stunted characters may not make for an easy watch, but Harsh Times holds its own as a sombre LA crime film with good performances and a strong atmosphere.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I’m becoming increasingly fond of the small-scale gems that emerge from the muck of Cable TV movie channels, and The Baytown Outlaws pretty much qualifies as such. It’s not a big, profound or even all that clever film, but it’s executed with a decent amount of energy and skill. It helps that the tone of the film is the kind of snarky crime/comedy/action hybrid that I can watch all day long. Here, Billy Bob Thornton and Eva Longoria slum a bit as (respectively) a crime lord and his abused ex-girlfriend who hires three vigilante anti-heroes to rescue her godson from him. The plot is slight, but the incidents along the way are certainly off-beat, ranging from a killer group of prostitutes, road pirates and native bikers. The Baytown Outlaws is anarchic, scattered, cartoonish (sometime literally so, to good effect) and morally off-center, but it’s also steadily amusing as what it does. Writer/director Barry Battles clearly stretches his modest budget beyond what could have been expected from such a production. Best seen as part of the grind-house exploitation sub-genre, The Baytown Outlaws exceeds expectations, and that alone distinguishes it from most little-known movies that show up on cable TV alongside the most familiar titles.