The Hurt Locker
Release Date: June 26, 2009
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes
By Sean Chavel
One of the worst titles of the year and yet one of the best films of the summer is "The Hurt Locker" which is so remarkable in its directing and its lead performance that it will probably resurface at the end of the year awards season. Here is a war film that situates itself in current day Iraq that sidesteps any viewpoint on politics, instead centering on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team that defuses bombs clandestinely spread out through the city of Baghdad. The three characters walk the line of death on a daily basis.
The bomb disposal expert in the crew is played by Jeremy Renner. The actor starred previously as the conscious-minded soldier in “28 Weeks Later,” the exciting zombies on the loose in London picture that was singularly enhanced by his strong performance. But now Renner has outdone himself with his performance as Staff Sergeant William James, but it’s a carefully modulated performance that takes time for the audience to get under his layers. He doesn’t provide easy answers to the reasons behind his behavior, it’s instead up to the audience to chip away at his layers.
His outline behavior is unusual because he seems to readily draw himself to danger – extra precautions be damned. This is alarming to the other two members in his squad, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who just want to do their job carefully and practically, as well as protect their own asses in the process. Sergeant James takes on the risks and hazards head-on, sometimes removing his radio walkie-talkie gear and bomb suit if it means getting the job done less safely but more efficiently.
The film’s director is Kathryn Bigelow whose “Near Dark” from 1987 is a gory-fun let’s-blow-away-some-vampires flick, the trash rob-banks-and-surf Keanu Reeves flick “Point Break” from 1991 still retains cult followers as well as the grim sci-fi mixed bag “Strange Days” from 1995. Bigelow has finally made a film that is a total success in terms of action, drama, suspense, war study and overall craftsmanship. She filmed the film in the Arab country of Jordan and at the three-mile distance from the borders of Iraq to capture as much shrapnel-littered authenticity as possible.
What’s amazing is that we get to know the characters almost entirely in drawn-out action and suspense scenes of the men on duty. The brilliantly thought-out scenarios were conceived by screenwriter Mark Boal who also wrote the story of what the underrated film “In the Valley of Elah” was based on. Bigelow’s camerawork seems influenced a little too much of Ridley Scott at his most jittery, but the sequences themselves create a slowly riddled and apprehensive suspense comparable to Kubrick. The third bomb disposal scenario is best (although this is a film bursting with memorable incidents), with Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge scoping out Iraqi on-lookers perched on high-top buildings who might be civilians or perhaps trigger men ready to set off a bomb by remote control. It is set in a public setting that is very difficult to surround and secure the area, and Bigelow’s command of the scene is impeccable. You never know what direction lethal harm might strike.
Also a stand-out is a startling firefight in the dessert where the EOD squad teams up with British armed forces led by actor Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “The Reader”). But it is important to mention that the film does break away from the battlefield, featuring key scenes that take place at base with one brief segment revealing why “Hurt Locker” is a symbolic title as Sgt. James shows the others “mementos” of his past assignments. Smaller moments reverberate as well when you look back at them, such as a simple scene of Sgt. James cleaning out leaves from a roof gutter and playing joylessly with a tin jack-and-the-box, although it is due to Renner’s superb acting that makes these moments resonate. And finally, the final image of the movie will haunt you for days.