Hurt Locker, The (United States, 2008)

June 24, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hurt Locker, The Poster

War is hell. It's a cliché, but not one that Hollywood often embraces. There are exceptions, of course, like Oliver Stone's Platoon, which takes no prisoners in depicting war as the gruesome, dehumanizing business it is. But Platoon and other films cut from the same cloth are more dramas than thrillers. The question is whether it's possible to generate white-knuckle, grip-the-edge-of-the-seat tension in a war movie without turning it into a glorification of violence and bloodshed. Director Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron's ex and the filmmaker behind Point Break and Strange Days, answers this question with a definitive, uncompromising "yes!" On a weekend when the effects-choked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen staggers into theaters like a stoned 800-pound gorilla and threatens to put audiences to sleep with its brand of deadly dull "action," The Hurt Locker is the film to see for those seeking an elevated pulse. It's 20 minutes shorter and about three times more exciting.

The Hurt Locker may be the first movie set against the backdrop of the Iraq War with absolutely no political agenda. The film doesn't care if the invasion and occupation are right or wrong or moral or immoral. All that matters is that the troops are there, they have a job to do, and the most important thing for every man is to get to the end of his tour of duty alive and relatively intact. This is an action movie, pure and simple. The Americans and their allies are the "good guys" (relatively speaking, that is) and the insurgents are the "bad guys." It doesn't get any deeper than that. The result is a riveting, adrenaline-pumping experience that boasts a number of unforgettable suspense sequences. The characters at the focus of this film are bomb technicians, and trying to defuse a bomb while being pinned down by sniper fire is about as nerve-wracking a job as one can have in the military.

The Hurt Locker boasts names like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and David Morse in its cast, but those well-known actors have only small roles. That's intentional since, although familiar faces get people into theaters, they can detract from the reality of the situation. The real stars are Jeremy Renner (as James), Anthony Mackie (as Sanborn), and Brian Geraghty (as Owen Eldridge). They play three members of a bomb disposal unit working in Baghdad. Sanborn and Owen provide backup and cover; James is the man who works on the explosive. He's a risk-taker, which irritates Sanborn, and he nearly gets himself blown up on more than one occasion because he takes unnecessary chances.

This is a tense, well-crafted motion picture that keeps viewers on edge. It's an exhausting 130 minutes; many viewers will leave the theater feeling drained. As it proves during its opening sequence, The Hurt Locker isn't beyond dispatching characters unexpectedly and without fanfare. There are at least seven high-octane sequences, any of which could form the backbone of a tightly plotted feature. Bigelow rolls from one to the next with only brief pauses. Still, despite the focus on suspense and tension, the characters are all well realized and the setting is forcefully developed. More than any recent movie, this has a "you are there" feel to it that gives us a flavor of an Iraq we don't see on the nightly newscasts. (Filming took place in Jordan.)

To these men, tactical objectives are irrelevant. It's all about counting down the days until the tour of duty is over. The insurgents are one enemy; with them, it's kill or be killed. The other enemy is the explosive devices, and they are even less forgiving. In a way, this movie reminded me of the old British TV mini-series, Danger UXB, in the way it depicts the struggle between man and bomb. One wrong move, and there's no chance to try again. The movie was picked up at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival by Summit Entertainment for United States distribution, and it has taken nine months for it to finally reach theaters. There's no questioning it's worth the wait.

Hurt Locker, The (United States, 2008)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1