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It's been reported that Eli Roth was inspired by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal when he made "Hostel," a horror movie about American tourists tortured in a foreign country. Never mind the backward logic there; the movie is a good comparison to "Harsh Times," about a U.S. war vet and former torturer (Christian Bale) sneaking his damaged mind into a post-military career with federal law enforcement.

Where "Hostel" is inspired, "Harsh Times" tries to mimic. It dredges up the psyches, perverted and crude, that think up the kind of murderous follies we've been calling international diplomacy for many decades.

Bale plays Jim, an increasingly unstable vet who's just been rejected as unfit for police academy training with the LAPD. You need only remember one or two of that institution's numerous psychotic episodes to get an idea of how twisted Jim must be if they won't let him in. The feds, however (in the form of the newly instituted division of Homeland Security), think he's perfect for some of their more nuanced flirtations with extreme prejudice. But this is all just a backdrop to show what kind of man Jim is and who made him. The story is in how his past affects his current life, primarily his relationships with his Mexican fiancée (Tammy Trull) and best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez).

"Harsh Times" was written and directed by "Training Day" writer David Ayer, a longtime L.A. resident who has an ear for the city's language and an eye for its seedy side. Despite the title, the movie is very comical. Most psychos seem funny at first, scary only when we get closer to the end. For a while we are encouraged to laugh it up as Jim gets himself and Mike in and out of numerous scrapes. When the end comes, the drama is a little maudlin, but not as big as it tends to be in pictures with more money. "Harsh Times" is as strong an anti-war film as any in recent years. It's another kind of horror story. (R) 120 min. **** S

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