This review originally ran in the 8/2 edition of The Source.
The best action film of the summer features soldiers, robots and big explosions.
Thankfully, nary a Terminator or Transformer is in sight.
“The Hurt Locker,” the latest adrenaline rush from director Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break”) is a taut, almost unbearably suspenseful thriller about a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit stationed in Iraq. It’s an intelligent, unrelenting and realistic piece of action filmmaking that ranks as the best film to date about the current conflict and, quite possibly, the best war film since “Saving Private Ryan.”
Bravo Company is nearing its last month in combat when Staff Sergeant William James (James Renner) joins up as the team leader and bomb technician, a replacement for Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), who was killed in action in the film’s riveting opening sequence. The unit’s job is to head out to locations where roadside bombs have been found; James has the harrowing task of donning the disposal suit, which looks like an oversized scuba outfit, and disarm the weapon before it blows.
James’ unit members, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are taken aback by their new team leader’s cavalier approach. James has no concern about waltzing up to a bomb and sticking around longer than necessary to disarm it; he seems to be seeing how close he can get to death and still escape unscathed. He won’t even send a robot out to inspect the site first. This does not sit well with his teammates, who must patrol the area to keep an eye out for insurgents who could open fire or detonate the weapon at any time.
Bigelow has gained a reputation throughout the years for being the rare female filmmaker who has no qualms about jumping into territory that is normally the domain of adrenaline junkies like John McTiernan or Michael Bay. Here she bests them both, bringing a sense of geography, tension and realism that is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). It’s easily the best work of her career.
Countless films have scenes where the heroes disarm a bomb. Most of them focus only on the task of “red wire vs. blue wire.” Bigelow, working from journalistic accounts of life within an EOD unit, pans back to show us the big picture. While James is disarming a bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge are keeping an eye on the surrounding buildings. Is the crowd gathered around to watch or is there an insurgent waiting to hit a detonator? When a car pulls up, is it a suicide bomber that needs to be dealt with or a civilian who got a little too close? When a man says he was forced to become a human bomb is he really crying for help, or is he just drawing the unit into a trap?
Hitchcock famously illustrated the difference between action and suspense as follows: a bomb is under a table and goes off, that’s action. But if the audience knows a bomb is under the table and two people are sitting at it, unaware, and we are waiting to see if the bomb will go off, that’s suspense. “The Hurt Locker” has scenes of intense action, including a nail-biting shootout in the middle of the desert. But Bigelow’s concern is not to cater to an audience need for big explosions and special effects; by showing us the effect a bomb blast has in the first scene and creating characters that are realistic and likable, Bigelow gains empathy from the audience and a desire not to see these characters hurt. Every scene, then, is filled with a growing sense of restlessness and dread as we realize that even the most peaceful moments can erupt into deadly violence.
The film is a very literal interpretation of Hitchcock’s definition.
Bigelow also deserves credit for refusing to politicize the film. She doesn’t go the “Valley of Elah” route by showing us the tragedy war causes in the lives of soldiers, but neither does she go the jingoistic route of being a gung-ho, kill the bad guys war movie. In painting her soldiers as average men doing an extraordinarily dangerous job, she pays the men and women of the Army the ultimate compliment. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty give natural performances, creating real characters instead of action heroes. When A-list stars like Pearce or Ralph Fiennes show up, their roles are unheralded and serve as a reminder that no one is safe in war, adding to the film’s dynamic tension.
In the end, however, the film is elevated by the psychological portrait it creates of James. In the age of a volunteer Army, what makes a man willingly go to war? The answer is given right at the beginning in a quote by Christopher Hedges that states “war is a drug.” While Sanborn and Eldridge both wrestle with fear in the face of death and only want to get home, James’ biggest nightmare is going grocery shopping or returning to the monotony of everyday life. Renner gives a masterful debut performance, getting into the mind of a man who is addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat, the thrill of being a “wild man” and showing us both the benefits and the risks such a mentality carries.
The film detours slightly in its late second act, digressing briefly into a mystery surrounding a young boy on the base. The plot thread is largely unnecessary except to show that even James is susceptible to the emotional and mental turmoil of combat; Bigelow could have excised it and still had a complete film, although its inclusion takes nothing away. A subplot involving Eldridge and a base psychiatrist is an interesting parallel to James’ cavalier attitude, but never feels like it reaches a complete arc, although there is a reason why it ends abruptly.
Still, these are minor concerns with an otherwise masterful movie. I find it interesting that “The Hurt Locker” is being released to art theaters before expanding wider. It’s a fantastic bit of storytelling and anyone who enjoys a good war movie or action flick will find a lot to love here.
But then again, when compared to the “Transformers” and “Terminators” of the world, this really does begin to look more and more like a work of art.