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The Hurt Locker (2009)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Screenplay: Mark Boal
  • Length: 131 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for war violence and language.

Deep in the bowels of the Iraq War, bomb squads must risk life and limb to protect the lives of innocents around them, but as The Hurt Locker shows oftentimes it’s never that simple.

Depictions of war have been fantastical to realistic and everywhere in between. The Hurt Locker lands distinctly on the side of realistic, hoping to bring the audience into the war zone and help them understand what's going on. But, there’s so much more going on in the Iraqi war zones than can be depicted in one film, so we are only shown a few such elements.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), one of the most successful bomb defusers in Iraq, is brought into a small squad when one of their original team members is killed in the film’s opening scenes. His fellow team members include Sgt. JT Sandborn (Anthony Mackie), a seasoned by-the-book soldier, and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a green recruit whose only preoccupation seems to be surviving. They interact as would be expected, but there’s nothing emotional connecting these soldiers, the camaraderie is limited to a couple of very brief scenes.

The scenes surrounding the actual defusing of bombs are tense and edgy, but the rest of the film seems at odds with itself stylistically, almost representing two wholly different films. Case in point is the overlong desert ambush, which is about as exciting as the desert itself, lots of sand blowing everywhere and very little drama.

There is also a subplot with a little Iraqi boy who disappears late in the film. Saying more about the scenes would give important details away, but the entire sequence feels out of place within the narrative, superficially injected.

Mark Boal’s screenplay is about how war is like a drug, an exhilarating dangerous drug. The climax fits in with the theme, but still feels tangential to the whole, which is one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. You could have replaced the actors in several scenes and still had the same film. The plot and these three characters are held together with tattered twine threatening to break at the slightest tug.

The performances are top-notch, led by Renner, whom I first saw in Dahmer and was quite impressed with his work. After that, he took on a couple of throwaway roles as villains, but he’s finally back in his element. Whether this launches him to a new, better career or he continues making terrible choices remains to be seen.

Mackie and Geraghty are both solid performers, working hard to keep their characters from becoming war film cliches. Mackie gives the slightly better, though woefully underrepresented performance.

Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial effort is solid, but her desire to avoid political conversations within the film, made for a somewhat mundane, if moderately more accessible film. The Iraq War was highly divisive, but what is depicted here is almost too apolitical. No one would disagree that soldiers like these are heroic individuals, but that’s about as far as the film goes in making any kind of statement.

Emotionally, the film is about as distant as a Roman Polanski film. Even The Pianist, a film I like less than this one, fails to create a real and touching emotional connection with the lead character. You mourn the situation, but not the forefront of the story. In The Hurt Locker, I didn’t care much for any of the main characters, whether they lived or died didn’t really matter to me. The lone scene I felt any emotional connection to was one in which an innocent man is strapped down with explosives. Renner did a fine job conveying his connection to the man and his desire to help save him, but that was my only emotional involvement with the story.

It also feels at times like I’ve seen this film, in bits and pieces, elsewhere. And we’re not talking from stylish, distinguishable films like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, but from the quieter more indiscernible segments of films like All Quiet on the Western Front, Saving Private Ryan and The Deer Hunter. And while I wouldn’t say they are carbon copies by any stretch of the imagination, it all feels a bit too familiar at times. There are a few snippets of creative energy in the film (environmental touches during the opening sequence when the bomb explodes for example), but much of it feels standard and unoriginal.

Many films draw heavily from the past and I don’t discredit Bigelow for doing so, but war films need to find a way to distinguish themselves from the rest and I don’t think there’s enough of that distinctiveness in The Hurt Locker. It’s a movie I can appreciate, but not one I can love.