The Hurt Locker

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Hurt Locker
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Baghdad, Iraq. The best of the Army’s best, the elite, highly trained bomb disposal unit has the most dangerous job in the world: find, disarm and destroy the insidious and deadly IEDs (improvised explosive device). When their leader, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed on one such mission, his replacement, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), soon arrives to take over the team. However, his fearless but reckless risk-taking begins to have an adverse affect on his subordinates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), in director Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

The tension ramps up right from the start in a film that is more an action thriller (and damn fine triple character studies) than it is a war film. Oh, sure, there are the requisite firefights but these are few and overshadowed by the taut psychological drama that delves into the hearts and minds of the men who perform this most dangerous job. True moments of terror and curiosity are shown when the men approach an unknown explosive device that could look like anything. As they ply their potentially deadly trade, the locals quietly look on, at a safe distance. It is kind of like free theater for them, but with explosives. This non-confrontational flow – not man versus man, but man versus machine of death – places “The Hurt Locker” in a unique place in the pantheon of “war” movies.

It is telling when a character, in this case Sgt. Thompson, is introduced, made three-dimensional and sympathetic, then taken out of the picture in the first few minutes. This combination of assured direction by Bigelow, finely crafted scripting by Mark Boal and talented acting by Pearce is just the tip of the iceberg. It gets better as the never flagging story kicks in and we get to know the main characters and see their brave exploits.

Sgt. James’s arrival is seen in different lights by Sanborn and Eldridge. Their new superior’s cocksure, get-the-job-done-no-matter-what attitude scares Eldridge to the point where he tells an army shrink that “he’s going to get me killed.” Sanborn sees James as a redneck, plain and simple, and views his not-by-the-book behavior as trouble brewing. James, meanwhile, shows an unexpectedly gentle side when he befriends an Iraqi boy, Beckham (Christopher Sayegh), and helps him get by in the war-torn city. This side story is one of several that has a full arch and defines the storytelling tapestry of what is Bigelow’s best movie to date (though I am a sucker for “Point Break”).

Mark Boal’s richly told story is a genuine ensemble film, though on multiple levels. There is the overall gathering of characters that range from the principals to such fleeting faces as the tough and ruthless Col. Reed (David Morse) and the leader of a private military contract team (Ralph Feinnes) that the UED team rescues with their impressive skill and ability. The story brings you into the guts of the bomb disposal unit and shows the intense danger that these men face daily without dwelling on their best of the best status. They just do their job and use their training to save, not take, lives.

As I said, this is a three-way character study but with Jeremy Renner first among equals. The actor imbues his character with a complexity that makes James empathetic and frightening at once. At one point, against both orders and regulations, James shrugs off all of his protective gear to be able to get up close and personal to a great big IED. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable, reasons the expert as he nimbly and daringly disarms the device. Add to this the story of Beckham and his impact on James and we have one of the best performances of the year.

Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty also render fine character studies as the other points of the bomb disposer triangle. Mackie’s Sanborn wants to do a good job but, unlike James, believes in the regulations handbook. It takes a long time for the foes to become friends and it is their working closely together under great danger that helps develop a wary trust between them. Geraghty’s Eldridge is concerned with making it through his tour and expresses his fears as James takes them into harm’s way repeatedly. The rest of the supporting cast gives depth to their characters.

Techs are phenomenal from top to bottom. Barry Ackroyd leads the tech team behind the camera with his incredibly sharp lensing, giving the film its realistic documentary verisimilitude. Music (Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders), editing (Chris Innis and Bob Murawski), production design (Karl Juliusson), art direction (David Bryan) and the rest of the top techs and artists help make “The Hurt Locker” a near flawless movie. Kathryn Bigelow marshals her forces with great skill. This is a must see film. I give it an A.

With 38 days left to serve in Bravo Company's Detection squad, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, "Half Nelson," "Notorious") and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, "We Are Marshall," "An American Crime") are faced with a new leader in Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, "Dahmer," "North Country"), a Southerner with a devil-may-care attitude and an adroit way with bomb defusing who plunges his team into "The Hurt Locker."

This compelling and visceral film is both a marvel of action and tension and a complex three-way character study.  Written by Mark Boal, who spent time entrenched with an EOD unit, this is without a doubt director Kathryn Bigelow's ("Near Dark," "K-19: The Widowmaker") best film to date, one which should be Oscar nominated in every category it's eligible for.

The film opens with Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce, "Memento," "The Proposition") competently leading Sanborn and Eldridge to a potential IED site.  A video-camera wielding robot gets close enough to detect the device they're after, but when it is sent out a second time hitched to a wagon containing detonators for the controlled explosion the squad is aiming for, a wheel falls off.  In goes Thompson in a special suit (one that makes its wearer look like a robot himself, Robbie the Robot in an alien landscape), but just when Sanborn and Eldridge begin to relax, a butcher with a cell phone is spotted and although he behaves like he doesn't understand their intent, it becomes all too clear what his is.  Pearce is so believable and comforting in this role it is shocking to lose him so soon, but the point has been made about the hair trigger nature of this most perilous job.  Boal and Bigelow have also laid down the routine, if it can be called that, approach to the job and the crap shoot that is 'going to Plan B.'

Imagine Sanborn and Eldridge's surprise when on their first outing with James, he seems to jump right into Plan C.  Eschewing the robot altogether, James suits up and walks down a long, narrow street to investigate himself, casually tossing off a smoke cannister behind him that obscures him from view of both foe and friend.  This after he has introduced himself to Sanborn by telling him he has no intent of taking Thompson's place as he plays driving metal rock and removes a barrier from a compound window.  As Sanborn struggles to rein James in, to follow the procedure experience has proven, Eldridge waffles in his fear to make it home.  Is James a real life hero or a nut job who is going to get him killed?

Renner's performance is strongly informed, a masterful representation of cool-headed professionalism housed within a cocky jock.  When Eldridge delivers on a command to bring more ammunition during a tense moment, Renner's James commends him with the slight formality of someone who has to remind himself that lesser mortals need praise.  Later, when Eldridge, now emboldened in James's image, makes the right decision in shooting a possible bomber, the 'good job!' that follows is delivered with real feeling.  A well-written subplot that has James bond with Beckham, a street hustling kid selling DVDs, shows the character in a more caring and humanistic light than his actions on the job. As Mackie plays Sanborn, there is no question of the character's bravery, but James's cool disregard for safety rules infuriates him.  Mackie takes out his frustration with an admonition for James to never, ever cut communications again.  Later Renner will literally 'ride' Mackie, making their tension palpable, before also defusing it just as neatly as a bomb in the field. When we see him stateside near film's end, Renner makes us marvel at James's ability to appear so normal.  In addition to those already noted, Ralph Fiennes is another strong supporting player as a hot jock British contractor caught with his men by enemy fire.

The film is a marvel of technical achievement as well, from the incredibly photographed opening blast to the you-are-there location shooting, crackerjack editing and sound design.  Bigelow's direction underscores her keen observational eye, ability to pull her audience into the action and sensitivity to the psychological undercurrents of Boal's material.

There is a trendy theory being floated by some that "The Hurt Locker" is a remake of Bigelow's ex-husband James Cameron's "Aliens," using bombs instead of slimy toothy beasties, and while the comparison is apt in the scene pictured on the film's poster art, overall it's rather pat. "Aliens" is a classic, but it is the interplay of the three main characters and the different way each deals with his situation that gives "The Hurt Locker" its beating heart.

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