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Scene from THE HURT LOCKER, directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

4 out of 4 stars


The Hurt Locker

  • Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
  • Written by Mark Boal
  • Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty
  • Classification: 14A

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is the only significant feature film to come out of the current Iraq War and part of its power is its uncertainty; it does not have, in any conventional sense, a message to deliver. This is in sharp contrast with the parade of dully sanctimonious allegories about conflicted loyalties that we have seen so far, in such films as Stop-Loss , In the Valley of Elah and The Lucky Ones .

The Hurt Locker (bomb-squad slang for where you go when a mistake is made) is a triumph of experiential cinema, filled with a rigorous, moment-by-moment visceral tension. Is this what fighting in Iraq is like? Anyone who hasn't been in a war is only guessing, but there is something powerfully convincing about Bigelow's way of placing the viewer in a situation where death is unpredictable, can come from 360 degrees, and is indiscriminate about who it takes.

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The movie opens with a quote from former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges (author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning ) to the effect that war is a form of addiction, a claim both commonplace and debatable. At least it signals the film's serious intent, at a time when audiences have been lulled into the idea that action movies and stupidity are synonymous. One would have to go back to The Wages of Fear , Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 film about hired European workers moving nitroglycerin over mountain dirt roads, to match The Hurt Locker 's mix of intelligent character observation and white-knuckle tension.

The movie consists of seven action set-pieces, with connecting dramatic material that establishes the characters and relationships between a three-man army bomb squad in the last month of a one-year rotation in Baghdad. The squad consists of an intelligence officer who gives directions, a specialist with a rifle who watches out for attackers, and an expert who either guides a robot, or defuses or detonates the bombs.

The scenarios are based on the experiences of journalist Mark Boal, who wrote the script after travelling with an anti-bomb squad. The bombs look and sound authentic; they explode not as Hollywood gasoline bursts, but as devices designed to fragment and cause maximum human damage.

In the opening scene, the soldiers of Bravo Company's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team are called to a busy marketplace to defuse a suspected IED (improvised explosive device). When their robot loses a wheel, the team's leader (Guy Pearce) dons his protective suit and goes out to set the charge to detonate the bomb. He's the first visitor to The Hurt Locker and a warning to viewers: Don't count on the film's few famous faces staying around for long.

March forward to the arrival of the leader's replacement, a pudgy-faced good ol' boy, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner ), with an apparent reckless streak. Somewhere, back home, there is a wife and a son, but they barely interest him. At first, James seems like a stock type, an adrenalin junkie with a hero complex. As the movie unfolds, we see he's less like a cowboy than an elite surgeon, engaging in a series of procedures where his own life is at stake. Instead, each bomb presents an opportunity for performance art, carefully scrutinized by foes and friends alike, peering from behind walls and nearby balconies, possibly with their fingers on a detonating button.

Precision determines everything. Even a desert shoot-out - using a telescope to direct shells at a point a couple of kilometres away - is a painstaking effort, requiring steady hands and careful breath control, to get the shell on target before the enemy can shoot first.

At times, The Hurt Locker can feel a little like standing inside the emergency-room doors, watching one atrocity after another come riding in on a gurney. But there's also downtime, including some relatively conventional interconnecting dramatic sequences. The three men have carefully contrasting temperaments: Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is a by-the-book professional, who is less committed to the mission than committed to getting out alive; specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is already a psychological mess, haunted by the unpredictable, instantaneous death that he's sure awaits him.

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There are somewhat familiar scenes of bravado and dominance - including a drunken fist fight in which Sanborn and James work out their tensions by swigging whisky and punching each other in the stomachs to prove their toughness.

There's a subplot about Sgt. James bonding with an Iraqi boy who goes by the name of Beckham, a DVD dealer who speaks in a mishmash of American slang. That friendship leads to a scene, outside the wire, that suggests James himself is a ticking bomb, a demonstration of Hunter S. Thompson's observation that, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Actor Jeremy Renner, who has had only minor movie roles ( North Country , The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ), emerges here as a compelling, tightly coiled actor, someone maintaining a precarious balance between the seething pressures from within and the terrors around him.

Much of the credit for his performance must go to Bigelow, who finally lives up to what has often seemed be an overhyped reputation. After the promise of her early vampire movie, Near Dark (1987), and the Keanu Reeves surfer-heist film Point Break (1991), her work has been mediocre to disappointing, hitting a nadir with her last feature, the 2002 studio action film K-19: The Widowmaker . There's something about this story, and this war, that brings out the stripped-down conceptual artist in her: Against blank canvases of desert sand and rubble, explosive wires are linked to nerve ends, and everything that matters depends on the twitch of a muscle or a finger on a button.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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