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Our review of The Hurt Locker (Blu-Ray), published January 12th, 2010, is also available.
"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."—Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
I didn't think a 21st century war film absent self-righteous moral hectoring or a presentation of the US military as a good ol' boys club whose membership is restricted to inbred homicidal miscreants and developmentally disabled 8-year-olds stuck in the bodies of men was possible. And then The Hurt Locker came along and made my year.
Facts of the Case
In the early days of the Iraq war, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) rotates into the conflict as leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. His job is to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) while his two teammates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, She Hate Me) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, Bobby) provide cover on the dangerous streets of Baghdad. James proves himself a highly skilled technician, but his unorthodox, risk-taking ways damage the trust of his two teammates who just want to do their jobs and survive the conflict. During their adventures, the three men disarm an explosive at the United Nations building in Baghdad, team with a group of British mercenaries to take out some snipers, deal with the body of a dead boy booby-trapped with explosives, and try to save the life of an Iraqi man locked inside a suicide bomber vest. All the while, James hurtles toward the realization that his almost obsessive enjoyment of danger may be beneficial to the US military, but it isn't exactly normal.
The Hurt Locker is my favorite film of 2009. If it doesn't at least score a Best Director Oscar for Kathryn Bigelow, then Martin Sheen and Tim Robbins better get their grrrrr> on because I'm going to go all Team America on Hollywood. It'd be a shame if Bigelow didn't win this year because she's a director who, until The Hurt Locker, has always been better than her material. Much as I enjoy Near Dark, Point Break, and even Strange Days, they're not great movies—fun, well-made, but not great. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow finally meets material that is worthy of her skills, and the result is unmitigated greatness. It is the Kathryn Bigelow flick I've waited decades for. She deserves every accolade for it that she receives.
As a director, Bigelow is a throwback in the best possible sense. She makes independent pictures that are entirely unconcerned with irascibly quirky characters that listen to jangly pop music, take cross-country trips in minivans, or call each other homeskillet; she knows how to shoot the hell out of a picture while working within the limitations imposed by non-Hollywood budgets and schedules; and she makes genre pieces that aren't concerned with pandering to the Jonas Brothers demographic and their hefty allowances. The Hurt Locker is an unbridled action flick for adults. By that, I mean in part that it lacks the gaping plot holes, wooden characters, and ridiculous dialogue that have come to define the genre over the past couple decades. But it's even more than that: In modern Hollywood, the phrase "for adults" usually means that a movie is riddled with dick jokes, full frontal nudity, gratuitous violence, or f-bombs. The Hurt Locker is an adult movie in the traditional sense. It deals with a complex sociological reality and emotional landscape that will be of little interest to most middle schoolers—and it does so without sacrificing any of the kinetic trappings of its genre.
Bigelow brilliantly stages the movie's action sequences, building suspense like Hitchcock and paying it off with gut-punching explosions that make the DayGlo fireballs in the movies of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich seem as garish and phony as they are (a near real-time firefight in the desert is particularly impressive with long, tense pauses punctuated by short bursts of violence and death). Some have called The Hurt Locker apolitical. That's nonsense. All war films—even the silly ones—are necessarily political. The Hurt Locker is neither silly nor moralizing. Like all great war films, it is blunt and honest and morally complex. It only appears apolitical because Bigelow is too concerned with treating her characters like real human beings to force her movie to conform to the reductive self-affirming fantasies of either the hard political left or right. The action has a rich and forceful moral backbone so viscerally potent that it doesn't require explanation or pontification. As SSgt. William James, decked out in a bulky Kevlar bombsuit, makes his way slowly towards an IED that he must disarm, the movie places us squarely in the shoes of his two teammates who scan the streets of Baghdad, looking for trouble. When they see a man holding a cell phone or filming them with a video camera, we feel the weight of how soldiers have to make split-second, potentially life-or-death decisions. Is the guy with the cell phone going to detonate the IED? Do you shoot him? What if he's just an innocent bystander, calling his wife to let her know he'll be a little late getting home to her and the kids? This is the emotional and psychological grinder in which The Hurt Locker's characters live, minute by minute, day by day. Bigelow's precise direction places their stress squarely on viewers' shoulders. This is action with moral force, psychological heft, and honest to goodness dramatic weight. The movie is so precisely structured that the set pieces aren't an addendum to the story, they are the story. The Hurt Locker represents a nearly perfect merging of style and substance.
Holding the show together is Jeremy Renner's exemplary performance as SSgt. William James. As written in Mark Boal's (In the Valley of Elah) screenplay, James is the loose cannon action hero cliché made flesh. Had the movie been made 15 or 20 years ago by a lesser director, he might have been played by Tom Cruise, sporting a crooked smile and cocky glint in eyes mostly hidden behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. Renner's version of the action archetype is believably three-dimensional, perhaps because he's based on a real phenomenon: After being embedded with an EOD unit in Iraq, Boal was left dumbfounded by how many of the soldiers, once their tours of duty were over and they were safely at home with their wives and children, missed the adrenaline thrill and sense of purpose that attended the high risk challenge of disarming explosives. Renner plays James with a just-beneath-the-surface vulnerability that suggests at least a partial awareness that his hunger for danger is abnormal and not entirely healthy. Boal wrote the character so that we are at turns exasperated with his selfishness and moved by his selflessness. Renner plays that very human contradiction for all that it is worth.
Bigelow and her crew shot The Hurt Locker in Jordan on Super 16mm stock. The Middle Eastern setting and handheld camera work adds to the sense of authenticity that permeates the flick. Despite the small format film, Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93) deliver an attractive picture with a tight grain structure and attractive, natural colors. While I'm sure it pales in comparison to the Blu-ray release, Summit Entertainment's DVD presentation of The Hurt Locker is a solid piece of work, delivering the movie just as Bigelow intended. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is a slight cropping of Super 16's native 1.66:1 aspect ratio but is in keeping with the movie's presentation in theaters.
Dialogue, music, and effects come across well on the disc's Dolby 5.1 audio mix. The rear soundstage is used aggressively when the situation calls for it, and your subwoofer will definitely be called into action during the film's many controlled and uncontrolled explosions.
The disc's extras are thin, but mostly substantive. Bigelow and Boal provide a low-key but quite informative audio commentary. The Hurt Locker: Behind the Scenes (12:32) is a better than average electronic press kit. There's also an image gallery that plays as a 23-minute slideshow featurette and includes an optional audio track consisting of a Q & A with Bigelow and Boal from a screening of the movie at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. The Q & A is mostly a rehash of information covered in the commentary, but is still worth a listen.
If every action movie was as smart, exciting, dramatically sure-footed, and thematically rich as The Hurt Locker, I'd be a very happy man.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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