Summit Entertainment // 2008 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // January 12th, 2010
You don't have to be a hero to do this job. But it helps.
The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug. -- From the opening quote by Chris Hedges.
Improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, are the weapon of choice by insurgents in the war in Iraq. Specially trained bomb squads answer the call to investigate suspicious packages, abandoned cars and mounds of dirt. They literally walk into death traps. When Bravo Company loses its leader to one such bomb, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, 28 Weeks Later) arrives to fill the spot in the three man team. However, his bravura and recklessness doesn't exactly win over his squad mates. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, We Are Marshall) is a by-the-book professional who hates the extra risk James exposes them to. Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, I Know Who Killed Me) is still a little shaken up at having failed to stop the bomber that killed one of theirs.
Inspired by his experience embedded with U.S. Forces in Iraq, journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal teamed with director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) to paint a portrait of the men who perform an extraordinarily difficult job in the most hostile place in the world. Movies about the war in Iraq have been an uneasy sell with critics and audiences. The unpopular conflict is mired in politics and the politics are divisive and complex. Bigelow and Boal have effectively sidestep the politics to focus squarely on the experience of the soldiers on the ground. As a result, The Hurt Locker is a top-notch action movie that feels completely authentic. No small feat for an independently produced film, shot in Jordan, that received no assistance from the real U.S. military.
The performances are strong right across the cast but Jeremy Renner turns in an especially memorable performance as James. He's got the intensity to be a convincing soldier and the charisma of a confident, if slightly dangerous, leader. James lives for the thrill of action just a breath away from death. He acts like a wild man on the field but he's uneasy and troubled during his down time. The story is honest about his limitations and when James goes looking for trouble, when he tries to be a hero, he's revealed to be out of his element.
Bigelow has proven to be a masterful action director and this movie is no exception. The locations feel real and the danger is palpable. The action set pieces are truly exciting and unpredictable. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd makes good use of the shaky-cam style to place the viewer along side the soldiers. It's difficult to find a clear sight of the enemy and almost impossible to discern civilians from insurgents. Yet, the flow of the action and the characters' strategies are always clearly communicated. Whether the squad is trying to control a situation in a hostile town square or they're trading shots with a sniper across a vast distance, the tension during these scenes is thick.
The visual quality of The Hurt Locker (Blu-Ray) is very good but it doesn't showcase high-def in the manner of big-budget, CGI-heavy blockbusters. That's to say, the image is impressive without deliberately trying to be in-your-face impressive. The movie was shot with multiple cameras so the footage is a mix of 16mm and HD video sources. For the most part, the image quality is consistent but you may notice that some angles are crystal clear and tack sharp while others are slightly grainy. The film grain is pretty subtle, though, and does add to that attractive "film" look, subjectively speaking. When the cameras are still, the image is satisfyingly sharp. However, those moments when you can take in the details of the frame are few because the majority of the camera work is handheld and shaky. The colors are warmly saturated and skin tones deeply tanned. The blacks are deep and during the nighttime sequences the shadows are deliberately, and appropriately, impenetrable.
There are two audio options offered on this Blu-Ray release and I'll talk first about the Dolby 2.0 Surround mix which is okay. Dialogue is strong and clear while the sound effects are well balanced. If this is the audio option you have to choose, it's fine but it really does feel like the action is contained in a box at one end of the room. Without question, the way to hear this movie -- and the reason this Blu-Ray disc gets a purchase recommendation -- is the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound. This is a fantastic sound mix that properly uses all channels to put you right in the middle of the action. The sound design creatively mixes realistic and abstract sound effects from the precise zip of bullets passing through the air, to the ominous throbbing thunder as aircraft travel in the distance and the delicate ping as spent metal shells skip off rocks. The sound is a perfect complement to the visuals and truly makes for an intense action experience.
The extras on this disc are also presented in HD. "The Hurt Locker: Behind the Scenes" is a 12-minute EPK promo piece. There are short interviews with all the main players, you see the crew working on location, but there are also lots of clips from the movie. The image gallery is a lengthy slideshow of still photos from the production. It's mildly interesting to see the cast and crew at work during various stages of the production. Playing the slideshow, which runs for 23 minutes, there is the option to hear the movie's music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders or listen to a Q & A session with Bigelow and Boal recorded after a London screening. Accompanying the feature, there is a good audio commentary with Bigelow and Boal. They share lots of information about the experience of making the film including the pros and cons of going without studio support. Specific to scenes they recall difficulties in securing locations, which speaks to the filmmakers' dedication for getting the details right. Especially interesting is Boal's comments on what real incidents inspired certain scenes or the specific details they wanted to communicate about the work these soldiers do. Of the supplements, the commentary is definitely the meatiest item on the plate.
The movie feels so real that I was slightly startled by the one character that seemed out of place. Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo, The Cry) is the combat stress psychologist counseling Specialist Eldridge. Maybe there really are colonels in the U.S. Army who don't have a realistic appreciation for combat and just spend their time on the bases. However, in this film where everyone acts like a battle-hardened professional, the naive Cambridge is a small inconsistency.
It may or may not be the best movie about the war in Iraq, but The Hurt Locker is surely the most intense depiction of what it feels like to be on the ground in that quagmire. For my money, it's the best action movie of 2009 and this Blu-ray release does a great job of bringing the riveting tension of that experience home.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery
* Cinema Verdict Review