Intense and Thrilling
The Hurt Locker could have been a Western. But instead it’s a war drama set in 2004 Iraq, one that follows an elite bomb disposal team working amidst the violent conflict there. The OK Corral is replaced by the dry, dusty streets and shady back alleys of Baghdad. Instead of exciting showdowns at high noon with six shooters, the team answering bomb disposal calls like a busy fire-fighting unit must face powerful Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) with 300-foot kill zones. The same he-man bravado and moral muscle we expect from Westerns permeates this movie, but in a different setting.
Also, The Hurt Locker could have been a horror movie... with insurgents standing in as the crazed hockey mask-wearing killers, ready to murder their unsuspecting victims at every corner. The tension appears as intense as in any horror movie in recent memory. Many have said war is the closest thing to a true-life horror movie, but few filmmakers have been successful in their attempts to transport that horror from battlefield to big screen. Kathryn Bigelow has emerged as one of the exceptions.
Bigelow is a master at illustrating the dangers of war. Her well-received K:19 The Widowmaker presented a gripping account of a valiant Soviet naval crew who risked their lives to narrowly avert a deadly disaster aboard their nuclear submarine. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow not only ratchets up the style factor, giving the film a disturbing yet beautiful texture (some scenes are as memorable and iconic as those in Apocalypse Now), but she also manages to jangle our nerves for the entire 130 minutes with an extremely visceral depiction of what men do under combat stress conditions.
The film doesn’t really have a conventional plot. Instead, the story is built around the last 38 days the three men in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad have remaining in their Iraq rotation. Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), just a kid but beginning to crack under the pressure, and the sensible Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), are simply trying to avoid the titular place that represents “ultimate pain.” They’re both getting over the recent loss of a teammate to what seems like total randomness concerning who lives and who dies. The new replacement, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is a wild cowboy of sorts (as pegged by his superior officers), who prefers to detonate devices without his protective suit. “If I’m gonna die... I wanna die comfortable,” quips the cocksure sergeant. To his teammates, James’s recklessness represents a danger to their own well-being. They begin to wonder which is a greater threat, the bomb on the ground or the man in the bomb suit. But Bigelow doesn’t allow us to form any judgments. Sgt. James is good at what he does, and what he does makes his fellow soldiers safer. To us, that’s all that matters.
One unique aspect of The Hurt Locker sets it apart from many of these Iraq and Afghanistan war films of late -- we’re never really persuaded to pick a side in the conflict. Though the story by Mark Boal comes from his experiences as a journalist embedded with an Army bomb squad in Iraq, it could have taken place at any time in history, anywhere in the world. The purpose of our presence in Iraq is never used for an emotional push, nor does the lack of an attachment to any particular character ever really matter. They’re all just soldiers hoping to get out alive, and we don’t want to see them get blown up. Our natural inclination to care about other humans gives us a strong emotional attachment to the film.
Though Bigelow does ask some difficult questions about the cost of heroism and what the experience of war does to a soldier, the message never comes across as burdensome or heavy-handed. The film’s focus is narrowed to dramatizing the dangerous work of the EOD squads, and the film does that exceptionally well.
As the credits begin to roll, we slowly tear our fingers from the armrests, hoping no one notices the damage to the upholstery. Horror, western, psychological thriller, or war drama... pick a genre. The Hurt Locker is one of the most intense and thrilling representatives from any genre to come down the pike in quite some time.
(Released by Summit Entertainment and rated “R” for war violence and language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com .