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THE HURT LOCKER
(****)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Kathryn Bigelow
Written by:
Mark Boal
Starring:
Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Mackie,
Brian Geraghty
Running time:
130 minutes
Released:
07/24/09
Rated R for war violence and language.
"The Hurt Locker” is not only the very best film of 2009, it is one of the very best and most exciting war movies of any kind to come along in a long time."
Some would find it easy enough to describe “The Hurt Locker” as an Iraq War film--that is, after all what it is. But to do so would be somewhat of a disservice. Face it, the mere phrase “Iraq War film” alone is enough to turn off many moviegoers who have been inundated over the last few years with a number of films on the subject that have been so grim, didactic and consumed with preaching their message to the choir that they have forgotten to be interesting or entertaining. Yes, there have been some interesting cinematic works on the war to emerge in recent years, ranging from documentaries like “No End in Sight” to fictional works like Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” but most have been closer to the likes of such deadly earnest and deadly dull efforts as “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Grace is Gone” and “The Lucky Ones”--dogs that moviegoers of all political persuasions rightly rejected for being examples of good intentions marred by bad film making. “The Hurt Locker,” on the other hand, shouldn’t be tarred with that same brush--partly because it isn’t solely about the war in Iraq per se and partly because it is such a fantastic piece of cinema that it doesn’t deserve to be potentially yoked down in such a way

Set in Baghdad in 2004, “The Hurt Locker” follows a three-man team of Explosive Ordinance Disposal techs who have one of the most nerve-wracking jobs of any of the U.S. troops on patrol--they get to sniff out the IED’s that could be hiding anywhere and defuse them under the tensest circumstances possible. As the film opens, the team--cool and collected leader Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and high-strung Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are at work taking care of another explosive device hidden in a large public area when the robotic machinery that they use to aid them in their work goes haywire. As a result, Thompson is forced to handle it manually and while he and his men undertake every possible precaution to ensure their safety, this is not the kind of situation in which everything can be managed and before long, Thompson is no longer in charge. Before long, his replacement, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) arrives and while he immediately tries to ingratiate himself with Sanborn and Eldridge, his efforts go by the wayside the moment that they go out into the field and he demonstrates a shockingly reckless edge to his approach--he prefers to disarm the bombs by hand instead of using the robots, discards his protective suit (“If I’m gonna die, I want to be comfortable”), deploys smoke bombs that make it impossible for his colleagues to see where he is or what he is doing and deliberately disconnects his communications gear when they order him to abandon the bomb and pull back because of the number of potential hostiles that they have attracted.

Having such a person on a team would be disconcerting enough under most circumstances but with only 30-odd days of service left, Sanborn and Eldridge are legitimately concerned that his actions are going to get them killed just before they are due to be rotated home. To them, he is just a reckless adrenaline junkie whose places his need for excitement ahead of his duty to his fellow men and at one point, they find themselves joking, for lack of a better term, about simply blowing him up themselves. However, as we get to know James, we slowly begin to see that while he does take a lot of risks that may seem unnecessary, there may well be a method to his madness after all. For starters, he is clearly good at his job--when pressed at one point, he sheepishly admits to having defused 873 bombs--and there is the possibility that he is good enough at his job to pick up on the potential dangers surrounding him in ways that Sanborn and Eldridge, presumably still shaken from the loss of their previous leader, haven’t grasped. There is also the possibility that no matter how many precautions he takes, the job is still too dangerous to ever be completely safe--if he is standing right next to an IED when it goes off, it probably isn’t going to matter too much whether he was wearing his protective suit after all, right? And yet, even someone like James has his breaking point and when he believes that a young boy he has befriended has been killed by insurgents, it sends him off on a half-cocked mission that does put him and his comrades at risk. After making it through that ordeal, he is forced to confront the two things that presumably scare him the most--the notion of a bomb that he cannot defuse and the notion of being rotated back home to a world where his main decision has shifted from whether to cut the blue or red wire to trying to figure out what kind of cereal to buy at the supermarket.

“The Hurt Locker” was written by Mark Boal, a journalist who was actually embedded with a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad in 2004 and who based the screenplay on his experiences. Even if you didn’t know that going in, you would suspect that it was written by someone with first-hand experience with the subject because right from the start, there is a sense of clear and unvarnished reality that permeates every frame. This is not the kind of war film in which every character gets to deliver a speech or two that explains their various motivations, hopes
and fears and in which the key players are pigeonholed as heroes, villains and cannon fodder. Instead, the screenplay chooses to have them reveal their character largely through their actions--a move that feels far more realistic and comes across far more effectively than a lot of speechifying--and because it refuse to ascribe any of them as being more important to the narrative than the other, it lends an extra edge to the proceedings because it means that any one of the characters can theoretically die at any time, a fact underscored by the rapid manner in which both Guy Pearce and another familiar face exit the proceedings soon after being introduced. At the same time, this is not simply a collection of anecdotes strung together at random in the hopes of giving it a more realistic feel. This is an elegantly constructed screenplay in which the action has been broken down into seven largely self-contained set-pieces in which the details change but the overriding dramatic arc--will the guys survive their latest situation?--remains more or less the same but our shifting attitudes towards them as the film progresses causes us to respond to them in different ways and keeps it from growing repetitive.

There are plenty of other great things about “The Hurt Locker” but the best thing about the film is the way that it quickly and decisively reestablishes Kathryn Bigelow’s position as one of the best action filmmakers around after a long absence from the big screen. From a technical standpoint, the film is a stunner from start to finish as she moves through the various set-pieces with an amazing command for the physical details of film making--every scene has been meticulously planned out so that we are always aware of where everyone is in relation to their surroundings and of the building tensions but she does these things in such a remarkably subtle and confident manner that they aren’t overwhelmed by the weight of the effort that went into creating them. However, Bigelow isn’t one of the soulless cinematic gearheads who are only comfortable with the technical aspects of the job. She is equally adept with the quieter and more character-driven scenes as she is with the more visually spectacular stuff--the final scenes involving James are quietly devastating in the way that they depict what happens when a thrill-seeker is cut off from the constant supply adrenaline that once gave his life meaning and focus. That also extends to the low-key but incredibly effective performances that she elicits from her actors--all of them are tremendous but it is Renner who comes out on top with what is certain to be a star-making performance. In fact, Bigelow’s work here can be seen as a response to all of the mindless and overblown action films that have popped up over the last few years--here is a film that is just as viscerally exciting as any of them and it even includes coherent storytelling, a strong screenplay, wonderful acting and a definitive purpose to boot.

“The Hurt Locker” is not only the very best film of 2009, it is one of the very best and most exciting war movies of any kind to come along in a long time. However, because it deals to a degree with the war in Iraq, there is a very good chance that many potential viewers will avoid it on the assumption that it is going to be just another drab and dreary diatribe. This is not a film that goes out of its way to take any sort of ideological stand regarding the war or our involvement in it. Instead, it simply wants to present us with a war film about the ways in which a group of soldiers react to the pressures of combat--change a few of the details and the story could be set during any war. As a result, it is the rare film of its type that viewers from all ends of the political spectrum can simply watch and admire as a thunderously entertaining masterpiece of genre film making without getting tangled up in the polemics.

HURT LOCKER © Summit Entertainment, LLC
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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