“The Hurt Locker”

Suppose they made an Iraq war movie and nobody came.

After all, it’s happened before. From "In the Valley of Elah" to "Stop-Loss," from "The Lucky Ones" to "Redacted," movies about the war — and, more to the point, those fighting it — have been box-office poison.

And there’s little reason to believe "The Hurt Locker" will escape its predecessors’ gloomy fate. These days, people just don’t seem to be in the mood for intense dramas.

Still, there’s reason to hope — that those who care about the art and craft of moviemaking will brave "The Hurt Locker" anyway.

Most movies that focus on an Army bomb-defusing unit, as "Hurt Locker" does, would concentrate on showing stuff blow up real good.

In "The Hurt Locker," however, it’s what doesn’t blow up that counts, because its main characters constantly struggle to save, not sacrifice, lives. Except, perhaps, their own.

Unlike some movies with similarly sobering themes, "The Hurt Locker" doesn’t waste its time with pompous pronouncements or sledgehammer symbolism.

Instead, echoing its gritty protagonists, "The Hurt Locker" concentrates on taking care of business.

Nobody has time to worry about anything else. Not director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break," "Near Dark"), not screenwriter Mark Boal ("In the Valley of Elah") and certainly not the Army unit charged with defusing all sorts of unidentified, hidden explosive devices.

"The Hurt Locker" shares its title with a 2005 poem, by Iraq veteran Brian Turner, that ends with these lines: "Open the hurt locker and see what there is of knives and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn how rough men come hunting for souls."

It’s a dangerous job they do — and not all who do it get out alive.

Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner of "The Assassination of Jesse James") wouldn’t have it any other way.

A cocky newcomer with a cheerfully daredevil approach to his perilous profession, James is an unapologetic cowboy ready to ride the whirlwind. (He ought to be a cowboy, considering how he shares his name with the cowboy artist and author of "Smoky the Cow Horse" and other Western classics.)

James’ damn-the-torpedoes attitude doesn’t sit well with his second-in-command, Sgt. JT Sanborn ("We Are Marshall’s" Anthony Mackie), whose by-the-book approach contrasts with James’ hellbent-for-leather style.

And then there’s Specialist Owen Eldredge ("Jarhead’s" Brian Geraghty, who also co-starred with Mackie in "We Are Marshall"), a scared-to-death rookie who’s got good reason to be scared — especially with James leading the way.

Screenwriter Boal sets up some awfully familiar conflicts, especially when it comes to the predictable James-vs.-Sanborn standoff, which carries more than a few echoes of "Platoon’s" clash between good and evil sergeants battling for a young soldier’s soul.

Even despite its occasional predictability, however, "The Hurt Locker" builds harrowing and undeniable power.

In part, that’s because Boal (unlike far too many screenwriters) uses action to reveal character.

James, Sanborn and Eldredge don’t talk much about what they do, or why they do it.

But as they do it, we learn the answers. And, more importantly, we begin to ponder even more questions, from how dehumanizing war can be to how addictive it can be — often at the same time.

Even more than Boal’s screenplay, however, it’s Bigelow’s execution that makes "Hurt Locker" such an indelible experience.

A trained painter as well as an action specialist (as she’s proved in movies from "K-19: The Widowmaker" to "Strange Days"), Bigelow combines the two, demonstrating striking visual virtuosity with offhand ease.

Using a jittery hand-held camera to create instant, you-are-there unease, Bigelow expands the movie’s range of images to encompass the real — and the surreal.

In addition to her visual flair, however, Bigelow also understands that what we don’t see can be as important as what we do. She builds suspense by allowing our imaginations to do some of the work — and, in the process, allowing us to identify with the characters risking their lives.

The actors playing those characters may not be as familiar as some Bigelow has worked with in the past (although "Strange Days’ " Ralph Fiennes does turn up in a vivid cameo).

Yet if there’s any justice in the cinematic world (a debatable proposition), Renner and Mackie should be accepting acclaim and accolades well into next year.

Renner’s the undisputed star of the show, ably conveying James’ delight in death-defying extremes, along with his genuine bravery — and his undisputed addiction to both.

But the steady, understated Mackie provides invaluable support, representing a voice of reason (or what passes for reason) — that makes him our eyes and ears in hostile, horrific territory.

There are plenty of things in "Hurt Locker" that may tempt you to cover your ears and hide your eyes. If you do, you’ll be missing one of the year’s best movies.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like