The Hurt Locker had a limited release during the summer, despite fantastic reviews the lack of a wide release meant that not many people outside of critic circles got to see it. However the film has been sweeping at various awards and that has put it back on the radar for those who missed it at the theater. Action director Kathryn Bigelow brings a steady and assured hand to this incredibly suspenseful war story. While most films set during the current Iraq conflict have been overly political this is a story strictly about the soldiers and the dangers they face. It has no agenda other than examining the kinds of men who do this work and it is all the better for it.
The Hurt Locker focuses on a EOD team (Explosive Ordinance Disposal aka Bomb Squad) stationed in Iraq in 2004. They have what may be the world’s most dangerous job as they are brought in to attempt to disarm or safely detonate bombs set by insurgents all around Baghdad. The bombs may be intricate or they may be basic but they are always deadly and the team is always at risk. Sgt. Will James, played by Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later,) is newly assigned to a three man team as their team leader during their last 38 days of rotation in Iraq. While the other members of the squad (played by Anthony Mackie of Notorious and Brian Geraghty of We Are Marshall) are eager for the chance to leave the conflict behind James seems to thrill in the danger of what he does. His reckless nature is offset by his incredible skill and his record of over 800 disarmed bombs speaks for itself. However his cavalier attitude towards his work brings conflict between him and the rest of the team. As the team tries to work together the war in which they find themselves brings them face to face with ever increasing pain and atrocity, perhaps more than even the adrenaline seeking James can handle.
Of the cast of The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner has been getting particular attention for his performance as Sgt. James, and rightfully so. James is a thrill seeker and is the kind of role that can be (and usually is) played way over the top. Renner displays wonderful restraint in his portrayal, never letting the bomb tech’s love of danger overwhelm the other aspects of the character. Mackie and Geraghty also do fine work as the other two members of the team and the dynamic between all three works very well. Usually with these sorts of military teams the members are either shown to work in perfect sync or as being constantly at odds. In this film the team falls in the middle of those extremes and it feels far more genuine as a result. Bigelow shows her usual accumen in casting by wisely putting more recognizable faces (such as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fienes) in small but pivitol roles. This helps bring attention to these characters who are important to what happens to the main three even though they only appear for one or two scenes.
Since The Hurt Locker is at its heart an action movie and since it deals with a bomb squad one would think it’d be two hours of explosions. This is not the case and in fact even the scenes dealing with bomb disposal aren’t about a big bang, but rather the tension of soldier who is face to face with something that can kill him at any moment. While there aren’t things being blown up left and right it is noteworthy how respectful the film is about the power of a bomb. Most action films will simply blow up have the set without a second thought. The very first bomb to go off in the film takes careful time to illustrate the full deadly power that these devices have whent ehy go off. However despite this there are very few actual detonations in the film and the tension of a scene doesn’t come from things blowing up left and right. Instead tension is derived from characters being inches away from a device that could kill them at any moment, and it’s a tension that wears off on the audience perfectly. The most intense scene in the film doesn’t even deal with a bomb, but rather with snipers. However this is not the high action sniper battle audiences are used to, with bullets whizzing by left and right. It deals with looking through a scope and waiting for movement and that waiting is where true tension comes from. The scene is long and not much happens for most of it but it is easily one of the most nerve wracking sequences put to film in the last 10 years.
As with most modern action films The Hurt Locker is shot hand-held in an effort to bring more immediacy and realism to the proceedings. Thankfully the film is shot in and cut in a way that it avoid the traps of hand-held photography that most films lately seem to fall into. The camera, while not fixed, is never overly shaky. The shot never shakes and shutters about, rather it will bob about the scene lightly in a way that actually does what it’s meant to: make the audience feel more like a part of the scene. Bigelow also avoided the current trend of over-cutting action scenes to the point that they’re impossible to follow. She brings a restraint to the editing room that is desperately required to make hand-held photography work for a movie rather than against it.
The visual feel of the film, the careful construction of each scene and the performances she was able to get from every member of cast makes the film and all those involved in it extremely deserving of the awards they’ve won and been nominated for. There is a slight lull in pacing following the team’s encounter with an especially troubling scene which affects James in particular. However this is a fairly minor hiccup in an otherwise expertly constructed film. Director Kathryn Bigelow has taken journalist Mark Boul’s gritty script and crafted something truly special with it: a thoughtful edge of the seat film that lets the quiet moments raise the tension rather than bombarding the audience with flashes and noise.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5