Kathryn Bigelow is one of the scant few famous female directors in the movie business, her status made yet more unusual by the fact that - unlike some of her counterparts, like Sofia Coppola - her forte is clearly in the action/thriller genre. Her first film, Near Dark, garnered something of a cult following, and her second effort, Blue Steel, gave us a decent performance from Jamie Lee Curtis amidst the moody police thriller setting. Then came Point Break, a definitive action classic, and before long she was taking on sci-fi elements in Strange Days, a vastly underrated thriller featuring standout performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett. More recently her work has been extremely hit and miss: The Weight of Water going completely under the radar and K19:Widowmaker sinking like the sub it portrayed. Still, despite the years that had passed since she'd last given us a top movie, James Cameron's ex-wife's name still carried enough weight - in and of itself - to make me eagerly interested in her latest film, The Hurt Locker.
“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
With just over a month left on their tour of duty, Staff Sergeant William James joins the leader-less Bravo Company, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq. Shocking the group with his headstrong, seemingly reckless methods, he thrusts the two remaining members into a series of terrifying situations as they scour the streets of Baghdad in search of bombs. During their plight, it becomes apparent that James is skilful at his bomb disposal trade, but more than a little affected by his life as a soldier. Will the team make it through their last 39 days' worth of wire-cutting, or will the next bomb they try to defuse be their last?
The Hurt Locker is a tremendous war thriller. It grips you from its nerve-wracking opening sequence, and pulls you along on this horrific journey through war-torn Baghdad, where every local could have a remote control in his pocket that may just detonate your life, where even your commanding officers may not have a clue about how to deal with the chaos, and where you have to trust people who may be borderline insane - with your very life.
The simple bomb-disposal story would have been enough to captivate any audience, following the dysfunctional trio of soldiers as they journey from site to site and deal with the devices - whether unexploded ordinance, or purpose-built booby-traps - sustains the tension, the thrills, and makes for a broad enough story for any halfway decent thriller of this nature. But The Hurt Locker is so much more than these basic elements.
Painting multi-dimensional characters, amidst all the mayhem of the ongoing conflict, we get to know a little bit about what it would be like to be out there, suffer under those conditions, and to not know who you could trust. And the majority of this we learn through the behaviour and character arc of the central lead, the slightly unhinged Staff Sergeant James. He could have just been another standard action-hero type, you know the 'maverick' hotshot who doesn't play by the rules but gets the job done better than everybody else. James displays all these trademarks, and is just as assured in his work, but without the cocky, show-off edge of those clichéd caricatures, his character seems much more plausible.
And his flaw is much more real - an almost-controllable addiction to the combat environment. A twinge of madness that makes his teammates question his every move, despite the obvious skill he has at doing his job. We've seen war-crafted madness before in the likes of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (as well as more recently), but this is neither ethereal nor psychotic, instead more of a subtle, slow-burning look at the potential result of prolonged combat. James has not quite gone over the edge, but he certainly does not mind living on it.
Jeremy Renner is on top form as the tortured soldier William James. He's a little-known actor, and in almost everything I've seen him in, he has been wandering around in full combat gear with an assault rifle (28 Weeks' Later, SWAT). Still, I guess now that he has the experience, he can look extremely comfortable in those combat shoes, and he plays the headstrong bomb disposal expert with a cool but self-aware depth that allows his brooding inner demon to rear its head wherever necessary, yet do so without either diluting the character, or rendering it a hackneyed one. Renner's James reminds me a little bit of William Petersen's unusual hero in the underrated William Friedkin classic, To Live and Die in L.A., only perhaps marginally less flashy. It's a towering performance, well nuanced, dynamic and extremely human underneath it all, and is sure to see him touted for upcoming awards.
Supporting him we have Anthony Mackie, another relatively unknown character actor (you may have seen him in Eagle Eye, or playing Tupac in Notorious), who does a commendable job as Sergeant Sanborn, one of the members of the group who stays behind to protect the bomb disposal expert as he diffuses the devices. Sanborn is a by-the-book soldier: he believes in sending out the recon robot first, checking the area, then perhaps rolling out the disposal suit and heading down in person. He likes to stay in constant radio contact with the disposals officer, know exactly what the plan of action is, and pre-empt anything that could possibly go wrong. His relationship with Renner's Staff Sergeant James is thus particularly strained when he becomes fully aware of just how much of a loose cannon James appears to be. It takes longer for any kind of respect to grow between the two, and even that is more as a result of the chaotic times they live in - where James' 'methods' are almost necessary to get the job done.
Rounding out the patrolling bomb disposal trio we have Brian Geraghty, who previously worked with Anthony Mackie on We Were Marshall and was in the disjointed Jarhead, but is also just as little-known a contributor. His Specialist, Eldridge, also has his own character arc. Haunted by his own inaction (he's supposed to be able to spot and eliminate anybody who could potentially threaten the guy in the suit), he struggles to find his footing within the evolving group: scared of James' daredevil antics, and yet compelled to follow - and supposedly learn from - the actions of his superiors.
It was an astute move on the part of Bigelow to cast three relative unknowns in the central roles in her movie, as it makes the audience feel much more uncertain as to where the story is going in respect of their characters. And she brings in a trio of familiar faces in blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos to shake things up a little bit. The English Patient's Ralph Fiennes pops up as a mercenary headhunting HVTs (High Value Targets). He simply doesn't do enough movies, and his ridiculously short segment in this movie (obviously Bigelow called in a favour after his starring role in her excellent Strange Days sci-fi thriller) certainly does not make up for that, but at least reminds us that the man is still alive out there. Proof of Life's David Morse gets an excellent cameo as an over-zealous Colonel, chewing up the scenery with the same kind of aplomb he exhibited in The Getaway. And finally we have a standout moment for Neighbours' Guy Pearce. The man has surely proved himself with the likes of L.A. Confidential and The Proposition, and yet I can't remember the last time I saw him in anything memorable. Here, playing a fellow bomb disposal expert, his part certainly is unlikely to be forgotten.
Whilst this is most certainly a character-driven affair, with the three central characters each following their own distinct, realistic and engaging arc, as originally noted, this movie could sustain itself on the action set-pieces alone. Bigelow crafts a succession of tense, unpredictable bomb disposal moments, playfully using environmental effects to build up the oppressiveness of the location, and wielding the score as a weapon to push the envelope even further (of particular note is that disorientating crescendo that fans might recognise from the beginning of There Will Be Blood, which ratchets up the tension as James' discovers, after diffusing a seemingly simple device, that he is standing amidst a half-dozen other interconnected bombs). She even throws in a couple of tactically astounding scenes where the unit shows their skills in more standard combat - an exhausting sniper confrontation and a pitch-perfect room-clearing sequence marking two of the prime examples of where the Director excels at her job. Every scene works well, and when Bigelow sets of a bomb, she really pulls out all of the stops in the effects department to hammer the shocking resultant devastation home. The screen ignites with the explosion, time almost grinding to a halt as the earth begins to shake and the shockwaves rumble across the terrain, destroying everything in the kill-zone.
This movie really is a work of art, a masterpiece painted by a Director who many will have come to respect for the classics she has given us - irrespective of the less noteworthy titles under her belt - but who has truly given us her tour-de-force here. Gritty and brutal, it puts the viewer right into the thick of the wartime chaos of Baghdad, without either the adopting the in-your-face symbolism of movies like Avatar, nor the surreal, darkly-humoured take that many recent war efforts have had. She plays it straight, and gives the viewer far more than they bargained for into the mix, leaving you contemplating the messages about conflict and patriotism long after you've finished wondering whether or not the lead character was even sane. And all the while, she has fashioned an extremely entertaining thriller, packed with tense, realistic moments, and explosive confrontations. Character-driven, but action-packed, Bigelow has done it once again. A modern classic.
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