My 2009 notes on The Hurt Locker.On balance, this is the best movie to date about the current Iraq war – though still a little short of greatness. It opens with a bomb squad on the streets of Baghdad as a couple of actors you’ve seen in other movies but probably couldn’t name (Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty) back up the recognisable Guy Pearce as a pro who gets into what looks like an armoured spacesuit to deal with a tricky IED concealed under a pile of rubbish. The bomb goes off and director Kathryn Bigelow segues from that docu/newslook handheld style associated with modern war movies (cf: Redacted, Jarhead) to ultra-slo mo which shows every pebble and speck of grit dislodged by the blast and the character we thought was the lead is killed (admittedly, this only works the way I saw it – at a press screening with no advance notice of who was in the film or even what it was about). Sergeant Thompson (Pearce) is reduced to a few personal effects stowed in ‘the Hurt Locker’ and Sergeant Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Geraghty) professionally accept his replacement, James (Jeremy Renner), a babyfaced daredevil whose bravery and risk-taking are either heroic in the extreme or a form of insanity dangerous to those around him — at one point, his team-mates casually discuss the option of deliberately triggering a bomb to get rid of him. Renner, whose first notable role was Jeffrey Dahmer, looks like a supercool Michael J. Pollard, and steps up to the first rank of character actor leading men with this showing.
Like The Small Back Room – still the top bomb disposal movie – it’s a character study rather than a thriller. We see James and his crew tackle a series of situations: a cluster-bomb buried in a street, a desert skirmish with long-range rifles (Ralph Fiennes is another soon-killed guest star), a dead boy with a bomb implanted in his stomach, a civilian unwillingly padlocked into a bomb waistcoat. For a while, the film flirts with having a through-story, as James semi-befriends a DVD pirate kid called Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) he thinks is the body-bomb but actually isn’t, prompting him to go off-base and sleuth on his own, getting into a tricky situation and then exposing his team to more danger. He bullies an Iraqi into taking him to the boy’s house, only to find himself confronting a couple without knowing if they’re even involved or he’s been passed off at random on innocents or aimed at folks his original contact hates. James collects parts of bombs which have failed to kill him and nods ambiguous respect at people he takes to be insurgent bombers or masterminds – but there’s little technical stuff, and the enemy remains formless. No connections are forthcoming, and whole sequences stand as self-contained dramas the characters live through (or don’t) without ever finding out the full story – this may be realistic, but after a couple of petered-out plot-threads, it also seems dangerously bitty.
Bigelow, less prolific than we’d like her to be, is among the most purely exciting filmmakers in the business and makes the set-pieces almost unbearably tense, flagging details like the flies which bother snipers as they gauge long-shots. Writer-producer Mark Boal does subtler work than on In the Valley of Elah, setting aside big questions about the rectitude of the war while concentrating on the strains and temptations of waging it at ground level – even the potentially sticky bonding between hero and urchin isn’t formulaic, with James almost seeming betrayed when the kid shows up alive. The real payoff comes when, after the whole film has had ominous ‘so many days til rotation home’ captions flashed, James returns stateside and is seen briefly shopping in a bewildering supermarket (a wall of various cereals) with his on-off wife (Evangeline Lilly) before re-upping and beginning another 365-day tour, strolling up towards another bomb on another street.