In his career to date, American screenwriter David Ayer has written both smart - solid crime drama 'Dark Blue', the superb 'Training Day' - and simplistic films (the disappointing 'SWAT' and one-dimensional 'The Fast and the Furious'). Happily, the script for his directorial debut, 'Harsh Times', falls firmly in the intelligent camp as Ayer re-uses his 'Training Day' template to good effect, teaming up a corrupt but charismatic guy with an impressionistic young partner and setting them to cruise the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles.

The ever-watchable Christian Bale plays psychotic ex-Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Jim David, who has no idea of how to cope with normal life. In LA for an LAPD interview, Jim hooks up with Mike (Rodriguez), an old partner in crime, who is trying to go straight to impress his high-flying girlfriend Sylvia (Longoria). All Mike's good intentions go straight out the window, along with his resume, when he and Jim get together and embark on a series of OTT misadventures involving drink, drugs, guns and women. 

Although Jim has plans to marry his loving Mexican girlfriend, Marta (Trull), and bring her back to the States, this is all pinned on the LAPD job and when it falls through, he takes it hard. Although there's still a chance of a call back from the Homeland Security foreign office, he can't resist a last blow out, dragging Mike deep into the mire right behind him.

Christian Bale, most recently seen in Christopher Nolan's moody 'Batman Begins', is compelling and electrifying in a deeply unsympathetic role. His take on this deeply disturbed young man is - like his similar performance as the gleefully amoral serial killer in 2000's 'American Psycho' - frighteningly convincing, yet he still manages to retain enough empathy to keep the audience as riveted as it is rattled. Bale is truly the star of this film with Freddy Rodriguez, playing the weaker character, pushed very firmly into second place.

There's a gritty and realistic feeling to Ayer's script and his direction as he documents an eventful three days in Jim and Mike's lives but, while the set-up is dramatic, the script itself does not have a strong story arc. Stronger on kick-ass attitude than coherent plotting, it has a tendency to meander and manages to run out of steam well before the end of the film.

That said, the great dialogue, moments of well-judged humour and another sterling performance from Bale make this dark, intense and violent film - and its director - one to watch.

Caroline Hennessy