Thursday, August 06, 2009

'Hurt Locker' is a taut, powerful war movie

Edge of your seat is a rather tired and overused description for a movie, but if ever a film deserved that description, “The Hurt Locker” is definitely it.

“The Hurt Locker” in a nearly unremittingly intense film set during the Iraq War circa 2004. To call it an action film or a thriller would be accurate on a visceral level, but somehow given the content that seems to sell the material short.

The film wastes no time and drops the audience in the middle of a situation involving a bomb on a street and the bomb squad preparing to disarm it. This opening establishes an anything-is-possible tone that leaves the viewer off balance.
From the opening to the closing credits there are only fleeting moments of relief.

There is one suspenseful sequence after another as the bomb squad the film follows is called out again and again. A sniper shoot out is a particularly taut sequence. It would seem the film’s intention is to approximate the sensation of being in war: You are always on edge.

This is by no means a gung-ho war movie. It respects soldiers, but does not glorify the things they have to do. This is a film about the effect war has on its warriors. The film opens with the quotation, “War is a drug" — and that’s the primary theme.

The film’s lead character, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner, “S.W.A.T,” “28 Weeks Later”), is a bomb specialist who is exceptionally good at his job, but he is also reckless and cocky. He is addicted to the adrenaline of war to the point of which he’ll put his men in danger.

This is not a new characterization for a war movie, but here it is a little different. Renner’s Sgt. James is arrogant, at times frustratingly so, but has moments, especially involving a young Iraqi boy, that reveal him to be a good guy.

Too often adrenaline junky characters are portrayed as sociopaths, and, while that type absolutely exists, it is nice to see a variation of that persona.

Other soldiers we get to know include Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, “We Are Marshall”), who is convinced he’s going to die in Iraq, and Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, “Notorious”), a by-the-book soldier who butts heads with James.

Sanborn is a good soldier, who in one of the film's hardest scenes to watch, breaks down realizing he can’t handle being at war any more. It is a powerful scene that is exceptionally well acted by Mackie.

The whole cast, including a couple familiar bigger name actors in smaller roles, is excellent, but the real star of the film is director Kathryn Bigelow. Every once in a while a director will make a movie that you didn’t know they had in them. This is definitely one of those cases.

Bigelow has been a reliable action director for nearly 30 years, with at least one cult classic in the form of “Point Break” on her resume, but nothing she’s done hinted that she had this in her. Perhaps the subject matter focused her film making, which is assured, well paced and never slackens its tension.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it is rewarding one. It is a non-stop action film, but one with a purpose and meaning — and that is something rare. “The Hurt Locker” will stay with you long after you leave the theater.


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