Harsh Times, David Ayer’s sour but haunting drama about a psycho army veteran (Christian Bale) banging around South Central LA, opened at 956 theaters last weekend but by Sunday had earned only a meager $1.9 million.

The movie is no masterpiece, but its commercial demise is a shame. As screenwriter of Training Day and the sadly overlooked Dark Blue, Ayer has tried to nudge the renegade cop formula into more troubling territory, aiming his loose cannons straight into the body politic. Dark Blue featured a seriously unglued performance from Kurt Russell as a racist LAPD cop in the days leading up to the 1992 riots, and in Harsh Times, Bale’s smart and discerning vet returns from overseas so full of war that he becomes a threat to his friends and himself–but a promising candidate for the Office of Homeland Security, which wants to send him down to Colombia to kick ass in the drug war. Unfortunately the marketing apparatus for urban action thrillers doesn’t exactly reward political rumination.

The movie’s failure seemed foreordained: three weeks ago Sharon Waxman wrote a great piece in the New York Times (registration required) detailing its tortured production and distribution. A navy veteran with issues, Ayer wrote the script in 1996 as part of a Sundance Institute lab, but no studio would touch it. Finally he took out a second mortgage on his home to finance most of the $2.4 million shooting budget; making his debut as director, Ayer shot the movie in a scant 24 days. After it screened at the 2005 Toronto film festival, a neophyte distribution company called Bauer Martinez Entertainment overbid on the project and then, seemingly annoyed at having overpaid, spent most of this year trying to pull together a release, with several dates announced and then scrapped.  

Bauer Martinez managed to strike up a partnership with the recently reconfigured MGM, so Harsh Times opens with the once-prestigious Leo the Lion. But the marketing has been geared mostly to urban Hispanics. A good deal of the story takes place south of the border, where Bale is in love with a poor young woman, and the other two starring players are Freddy Rodriguez (Six Feet Under) as Bale’s hapless buddy and Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives) as Rodriguez’s fed-up wife. The prickly issue of how to absorb the trauma of our Iraq war veterans–addressed so powerfully in Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary The Ground Truth–gets lost in the shuffle.

To some extent the movie’s political impact is blunted by Ayer’s vague treatment of Bale’s character. Check out the reviews on the Guardian Unlimited site and you’ll see an Observer review by Philip French describing Bale as a veteran of Bush 41’s gulf war and a Guardian review by Peter Bradshaw describing him as a veteran of Bush 43’s Iraq war. The Office of Homeland Security wasn’t created until September 2001, so there’s no way the character could be a gulf war veteran. (That misconception probably originated with Variety critic Todd McCarthy, who reviewed the movie shortly after its Toronto screening and may have been confused by the script’s 90s origins.) But other onscreen details suggest Afghanistan: in one scene Bale refers to a mission that began with him leaping out of a helicopter in the mountains, and the night-vision sequence that opens the movie shows rangers charging a sort of mujaheddin encampment.

If anyone out there cares to clear this up, I’d be much obliged. I don’t know whether the specifics were mucked up by Ayer as the screenplay gestated for ten years or whether the movie’s political edge was blunted in the editing room. But by making the military campaigns in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq more or less interchangeable, Ayer squanders a valuable opportunity to intersect with the times.