A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2009

RANK: # 2

Rank:  #1


2009, R, 127 mins.

Staff Sgt. William James: Jeremy Renner / Sgt. J. T. Sanborn: Anthony Mackie / Specialist Owen Eldridge: Brian Geraghty / Sgt. Matt Thompson: Guy Pearce / Contractor Team Leader: Ralph Fiennes / Col. Reed: David Morse / Connie James: Evangeline Lilly / Col. John Cambridge: Christian Camargo / "Beckham": Christopher Sayegh

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow / Screenplay by Mark Boal

"Are bombs the only way of setting fire to the spirit of a people?"

- Gregory Clarke (war veteran, journalist, and humorist)

Kathryn Bigelow’s THE HURT LOCKER is one of the most overwhelmingly intense and brutally realistic portraits of urban warfare ever presented on film, and one that certainly deserves serious recognition of being on a list of the upper pantheon of wholly immersive war films.  

It’s genius stems from a three prone focus: (a) It's a muscular, rip-roaring, gung ho, and nerve-wrackingly exhilarating action film, (b) a vivid and consummately made look at the nature of the current  battlefronts in Iraq, and (b) a deeply penetrating and intimate presentation of how some soldiers treat war as some sort of sickening drug that must be used to constantly maintain their adrenaline-induced lust for combat.   Compared to the banality of life back on the home front, one character in THE HURT LOCKER paradoxical feels more secure while continually staring death in the face on the warfront.    

Perhaps best of all is how Bigelow utterly transcends the contemporary war genre as a whole.  Everyone has an idea of what these type of films entail, whether it be in presenting the gritty and teeth-clenched verisimilitude of blood drenched combat or focusing on the paralyzing effects of war on the soldiers’ psyches back home or by commenting on the political justifications for war in general.  To be sure, Bigelow’s war film demonstrates an austere technical mastery: This is a war film that breathes with believability all the way through its 127 minutes, not to mention that she harnesses nail-biting tension and intrigue in some of the most well-oiled moments of suspense I’ve seen in a long time.  In terms of facades, THE HURT LOCKER has superficial similarities with countless other past war films, but that’s where the correlations end.  The finest thing that Bigelow does here is how she flips around the psychological prerogative of her soldiers (one character in particular is not driven mad by war, per se, but more by the tediousness of life outside of war) and how she crafts a compelling war film without engaging in tired and preachy political aggrandizing.     

Most of us have preconceived feelings regarding the validity of the war in Iraq and on terror, but Bigelow thankfully never wastes any of our time in the film by sermonizing about the pros and cons of these polarizing conflicts.  Instead, THE HURT LOCKER is a film of startling immediacy and visceral impact:  it's an textbook example of out-of-body escapism that exists on a level of showing us what soldiers endure everyday for their country.  Reasons or explanations for US involvment in the Middle East is not the point of this film: THE HURT LOCKER is primarily concerned with its portrait of how inordinately courageous – and borderline insane - some people are when performing near-fatal tasks in the heat of battle with a  nonchalant attitude.  Considering the dangers these soldiers experience, any normal person’s inclination would be to flee; these men embrace the peril.    

Bigelow is further assisted by an Oscar-nomination worthy screenplay by freelancer named Mark Boal, who has contributed to Playboy, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone magazines and also wrote the short story that inspired another Iraq War-centric film, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH.  Earlier this decade Boal himself saw time in the field as he was embedded with a real-life bomb squad in Iraq and it is mostly from his first hand experience where much of THE HURT LOCKER’s veracity and sense of time, mood, and place originate.  The focus of attention in the film is ostensibly on one American military bomb squad (EOD, or Explosive Ordinance Disposal) an elite team whose soul purpose is to deactivate improvised explosive decides – both large and small – in the city streets of Iraq.  Chances of survival are, of course, 50/50 with every mission, but some of these men approach each mission with an astonishing casualness.  Certainly, the conditions that the squad must work in are anything but normal: They often have to go into heavily populated and unfriendly areas, sometimes with hostiles shooting directly at them while one brave and heavily geared up man attempts to diffuse devices that require nerves of steel and rock steady hands.   

Alas, to many of them it’s simply all in a day’s work.   

The film opens without fanfare or redundant exposition: Bigelow hurtles us forcefully right into the heat of the hostile action and never looks back.  We are very quickly introduced to the bomb squad while on a “routine” call to investigate an explosive device at the epicenter of Baghdad.  They initially use a much safer roving robot to peer closely into the location of the bomb itself, but after a failure with one of its actions, one of the men decides to suit up and go in for a look himself, which has disastrous consequences. 

In order to continue on with their 38-day tour of duty, the squad decides to replace their slain bomb debugger with an intelligent, crafty, quick witted, strong, but unreservedly rash and impulsive Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner, a lock for a Best Actor nod next spring; more on him in a bit).  The other team members, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) find James’ methods to be…highly disturbing and reckless.  On most missions he thoughtlessly breaks protocol and instead relies on miraculous improvisation and his undeniable knowledge of explosive devices, and it his spontaneous, on-the-spot methods that alienate his companions on the field to no end.   

Yet, this guy knows his stuff, seeing as he has a record of defusing well over 800 devices during his tours, which he believes gives him the decided advantage of using his own hazardous methods to get the job done.  Unfortunately for James, he is one of those know-it-alls that really does know it all when it comes to bombs, and his near-fanatical - almost eroticized – attachment to the devices he deactivates consumes him.  Like a plucky, determined, and highly resourceful surgeon that will do anything not to let a patient die on the operating table, James lets his compulsion for not letting any bomb detonate utterly overwhelm all of his other impulses.  He understands and acknowledges the danger he places himself in, but that high risk of death is almost an alarming afterthought: he's like a junkie that can’t stop getting his fix. 

The more missions the squad embarks on the more the ragtag group begins to work as a seasoned team, even while James’ choices on the field continually alarms everyone.  Each successive mission seems more impossible than the last, and while the group struggles to maintain a tight and guileless composure while in the hazardous field, some of the team members begin to have great difficulties confronting the radically unpredictable harshness of the Iraqi insurgents.  They also deal with constantly struggling to disseminating which Iraqi citizens are loyal and innocent bystanders and which are enemies.  The longer their tour gets and the closer it gets to completion, the more the overall madness and chaos of the war in general starts to eat away at their increasingly fragile nerves to the point of inspiring hopeless apathy.  James, on the other hand, is going in the opposite direction: it soon becomes apparent that this war machine needs war in his blood.  He actually begins to yearn and crave for the rush of mortal jeopardy, so much so that the thought of going back home to his wife and child has no motivating power over him.  Whereas most men are driven sick by the thought of war, James only gets stronger by it.   

That’s the real heart of darkness to THE HURT LOCKER: its insightful and oftentimes shocking expose on the nature of heroism while in battle.  James is presented both in the swift strokes of classic war film heroes as well as in the more subtle vein of conflicted, deeply flawed and introverted anti-heroes.  THE HURT LOCKER confronts viewers head-on as to whether James is a man of duty, honor, and courage or whether he is an emotionally unstable and implacably damaged man.  It might be a combination of all of those traits because James is extremely talented at what he does and has a sort of swashbuckling, cowboy bravado and cocky intrepidness that is kind of commendable, but he is so emotionally scarred and obsessive that he is anything but a team player.  One of the real triumphs of THE HURT LOCKER is how Bigelow gets inside the mindset of this profoundly imperfect, but nonetheless audacious and gutsy soul, which is greatly assisted by James Renner’s towering, star making performance.  Having the outward veneer of a rough, rugged, and world-weary Daniel Craig alongside the wily determination and fearlessness of a Russell Crowe, Renner is nothing short of a pure revelation in the film.  His juggernaut performance commands our attention at every waking minute in the film. 

Equally commanding are Bigelow’s aesthetic choices in the film.  No stranger to helming polished and slick looking auctioneers (she made POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS, and K19: THE WIDOWMAKER), Bigelow frees herself from the more conventional restraints of big budget action filmmaking and shoots THE HURT LOCKER with a swift, sure-footed, and wonderfully loose improvisational style that greatly reflects the improvisational attitude of her lead character.  Using largely hand-held cameras, tightly held compositions, and a grainy film stock, Bigelow suggests a gnarly realism to the film that never makes you question its authenticity.  By shooting in Jordan and by employing multiple camera crews for most scenes, Bigelow creates a vivid, documentarian virtuosity with a spell binding sense of propinquity to the proceedings.   It is one of the most resourcefully executed war films I’ve seen in how it places us squarely and securely in the tightly sealed bubble of a foreign world that is very far away from our own.  Costing near pennies compared to the overwrought and gratuitously flashy spectacles like the recent TRANSFORMERS sequel, there is more atmosphere in 30 seconds of THE HURT LOCKER than in the entire two and a half hours of Michael Bay’s abortive film. 

One last thing bares mentioning regarding how Bigelow creates suspense.  She obviously has used Hitchcock as a strong influence, especially for how no one seems impervious to death here (characters that appear like they are introduced as prominent figures become quick and surprising victims, never to return).  The way the film dispatches people without mercy or recourse amps up the tension in the film. Then there are the many sequences sprinkled throughout THE HURT LOCKER where Bigelow shows what a maestro she is at generating a sense of haunting unease and misery while later showing us the horrific side of the destruction and carnage of war.  Bigelow never sells out by engaging in action film clichés or devices to make us squirm in our theatre chairs.  She intuitively understands that the finest way to make viewers feel ill at ease is with a methodical patience and sense of clarity: she frames the sequences so that we know what is happening and who is involved and avoids the shaky, queasy cam style of rapid edits every millisecond to conjure up intensity.  Her techniques here should be required viewing for any aspiring action director as to the right way to helm set pieces that pack a resounding, gut wrenching power.  All of the lame and hyper-stylized tricks in the book would have all but subverted the pathological energy and sense of palpable, real world chaos that THE HURT LOCKER generates. 

Bigelow does not make many films, but when she does they count, and her hair-raisingly intense, provocatively acted, and meticulously filmed THE HURT LOCKER is no exception.  Just when I thought that there was no new territory for the dime-a-dozen war genre to explore, along comes this first-rate actioneer that reminds us that even overused and outdated genres are still ripe of re-evaluation and re-interpretation.  The film's rebellious edge comes predominantly from how it blends the heart-stopping intrigue of the modern, urban war zone with that of an unexpectedly fascinating character study.  More than just about any other recent macho and granite-jawed action film, Bigelow here treats her personas with a journalistic eye for sensitive detail.  As a result, these characters become less like caricatures trapped in an obligatory war film and more terrifyingly real as participants in armed conflicts where the dangers and consequences of inaction feel all the more tangible.  As much as the film is exhausting on a pure visceral level and crackles with a dazzling authenticity, THE HURT LOCKER’s suspense only stays afloat alongside its meditative account of the troubled mindsets of its daring and jaded characters, something that seems to be all but avoided in most testosterone-injected action pictures.   In many ways, Bigelow has beaten her male directorial counterparts at their own game.  

THE HURT LOCKER is one of the great action-thrillers and one of 2009’s most extraordinary and unforgettable films.    

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