‘The Hurt Locker’: Explosive tension

June 22, 2009

Perhaps it’s too early to be talking about Oscars but, at this point, Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” absolutely belongs in the mix. There’s more tension in this gripping tale than in the waistband of Oprah’s skinny jeans – which is pretty freakin’ tense.


A bomb-squad thriller about an adrenaline junkie who gets his kicks disarming improvised explosive devices (known in the jargon as IEDs), “The Hurt Locker” brings it right to the viewer without pandering to him. It’s an intense tale of men facing death at any moment, relying on their wits, their will and their skill to get them out alive.


Much already has been made of the fact that this is an expertly made film whose commercial fate is fraught with as much suspense as its action sequences (which will have you chewing your fingernails). It seems cruel to suggest that it might face the same sorry commercial fate as such deserving films as “In the Valley of Elah,” “A Mighty Heart” and “Lions for Lambs,” simply because it too is set in the midst of the Iraq war.


Directed by Bigelow from a script by Mark Boal, the film stars Jeremy Renner as Sgt. Will James, who is brought in to head up an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit after its commander is blown up in a street bombing. The other members of the squad, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), have a little more than a month left in-country and their first impression of their new commander is an alarming one.


They’ve been trained to follow a step-by-step protocol that maximizes their safety, beginning with a rolling robot-cam to give them a close-up of the explosive from a safe distance. So they watch in horror as James jumps in feet-first as it were.


Rather than donning the bomb-protection suit as a last resort after first assessing all options, he skips the robot-cam altogether, slips into the padded suit and strides off to find the bomb himself. He grabs and snips wires, handles blasting caps – in other words, he goes total gonzo cowboy, all but juggling the bombs as he tracks wires and disarms an octopus-like series of explosives.


As he says to Sanborn and Eldridge afterwards, what fun is the job if you play it safe? How do you know you’re alive unless you confront death and walk away still breathing?


The credo of the extreme-action type: James makes it clear that he lives for those moments when it can all go either way without warning. But his squad mates just want to go home – alive, not in a box.


Boal’s script doesn’t depict James as a hot dog, a show-off or some sort of macho bully. He seems genuinely puzzled when his efforts upset his colleagues – most of the time. He’s just a hard-charger with a serious jones for the kind of juicy moments that get the heart racing, the kind that make normal people a little light-headed and short of breath at the prospect of what comes next.


Instead, he lives to feel alive – to yank himself out of the doldrums (i.e., the rest of his life) and confront imminent destruction. It’s not a game – it’s an addiction, a disease, an irresistible compulsion. The only high greater than getting out alive is the alternative.


The film gives James lots to play with. The story is set in 2004 Baghdad, when the only people feeling shock and awe at this pointless, unnecessary war (and, more important, the subsequent insurgency) are the ones forced to survive the daily carnage outside the green zone. Bombs seem to pop up on a daily, even an hourly, basis – which is plenty to keep the EOD boys hopping.


Bigelow creates suspense without resorting to the kind of slice-and-dice editing of directors like Michael Bay or the Tony/Ridley Scott machine. She allows the situations to sink in and then lets them play out. The audience doesn’t need to be goosed by flashy camera moves or pounding music to understand the tension of the moment.


She’s got a terrific cast of relatively unknown actors with great chops who can handle complex emotions. Topping the list is Renner, who has been outstanding in small, unseen films such as “Take” and “12 and Holding.” He makes James an affable, conscientious soldier who can’t quite make the connection between his own casual fearlessness and his partners’ anger.


Equally good is Anthony Mackie, so unsung in “Half-Nelson” and other films. He’s got the grit and steely spine for the role, and the humanity to make his courage in moments of danger that much more telling.


“The Hurt Locker” is one of the year’s best films so far – and could easily wind up on many 10-best lists at year’s end. It far outstrips any of the summer’s action films in terms of the jolt it packs. Erase the word “Iraq” from your memory and go see it.


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