- What’s Good: Like the Iraq War genre, Kathryn Bigelow can’t be counted out after this film. “Hurt Locker” is a breakthrough effort and the only truly successful Iraq War 2 film ever made.
- What’s Not: Some nagging loose ends. At times the film is a bit too ragged and unorganized. The film is tense but it’s not always as tight as it could be.
Army Guy1: Pretty much, the bottom line is that if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.
Sergent: Would you shut the fuck up!
I heard about, read about about and eventually saw Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” This is a film that I saw, but saw under protest because, from where I’m standing, every Iraq War 2 film ever made –and even every Iraq War 1 film except for “Three Kings”– has failed in one epic way or another. So despite its seemingly tired yet scathingly topical subject matter, the word-of-mouth on this one could not be ignored even by me. So… I saw it and I’m so glad I let this one slip in because it’s not going to be slipping out anytime soon.
“The Hurt Locker” is not a great film so much as it is a great force. This film takes such a virtuosic look into wartime maters that it cannot be ignored and even less can it be written off as “just another…” by people like me. The reason is that unlike all Iraq-set war dramatic films, “The Hurt Locker” –like any great story– exists as a film before it does a “war film.” I would not call it a political war film and yet would also not call it a apolitical war film; it’s action film and even a thriller before it’s those things. You watch and you forget where you are and who you are. When the smoke settles –and there’s a lot of smoke– there is just the content and the characters. It’s that good. The story, about Bravo Company, a bomb squad squadron (or whatever they call themselves) that, like Firemen, head into danger as everyone else, including soldiers, are fleeing it. When the story opens the gang has 39 days left in their rotation, “38 if we survive today” is a great line uttered by one of the three primary characters and one that looms in the dry desert air throughout the film. War (and cop) films with that X-amount-of-days-left structure are contrived by nature but “Hurt” man’s up and survives any claims of narrative banality. In fact once you see the film the countdown to this notion of “the end” of their tour is totally absurd because what comes after “the end”? Certainly not the war. Perhaps only death. The intense action and emotional fallout is true to the material rather than overly polemical (“Stop-Gap”) or calculated (De Palma’s “Redacted”) or robotic (take your pick of the almost weekly Iraq war documentary).
Jeremy Renner, and you will know that name soon, stars as Staff Sergeant William James, the new addition to Bravo. The last one (Guy Pierce) got blown to shit and Renner comes in at a particularly terse time for the squad, the army, and that damned country. James breaks protocol his first mission out involving an IED is nessled in some trash on the side of the road. To divert attention from all sides he sets off a smoke bomb and heads into the cloudy blast zone –slow motion of course– and I was instantly reminded of a man walking into purgatory. What gets me is how Renner walks in with a smile that is as devilish as it is hollow. He comes back alive but, in the process, rubs his company the wrong way. Probably because he cares about his job (we learn, perhaps tragically, it’s the one thing in life he loves) more than going home. Who can blame him? But who can blame his team! Each day finds the squad in a similar scenario and the film’s episodic narrative structure, while not for everyone, is a handy way to approach such a sprawling subject matter.
Sergeant James is backed by Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackey) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, also in “Jar Head”) the whole movie and, yes, they could also be called three kings. While the two are “normal” soldiers, skilled yet reasonably disturbed and depressed, Renner does not play James as the tortured Martin Sheen type (done to death) or theguy with a death death wish or a war dog but… something else. A combination perhaps but, more accurately, a complex character that war films rarely, if indeed ever, see. James is funny and sad but always pragmatic, that is when he’s not a headstrong “wild man.” When removing a shrapnel barrier that blocks his barracks window so that he can enjoy the sun, this man is totally in touch with the land and at the same time resigned to whatever fate he may meet. If he dies he dies and that’s all there is to it. He may not fear death like normal soldiers but this is not because he’s scared or stupid but, rather, because “I just don’t think about it.” Simple, yet, not. I have to mention that Renner is doing a similar thing here as he did in the underrated “28 Weeks Later” (he also played a ballsy American solider in that film) except instead of zombies it’s Arabs (big diff). I fully expect, or at least, hope Renner (along with the film and director) get major awards recognition.
The casting really makes this film shine. Besides Renner and his crew four cameos kick (Sergeant Major) ass. Pierce as the first bomb guy opens the film and the scene where he attempts to diffuse a bomb sets a mood that the rest of the film picks up on–gravity over melodrama and not totally humorless. David Morse is also effective as a Colonel who sees Renner’s actions and mock the hell out of him, asking the hot shot bomb guy how many bombs he’s diffused with a wide, fuck you grin and a “oh, wow!” when he hears the astronomical answer. Next is Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo–the evil bro from “Dexter”) as the Army Psychiatrist who lives in an academic bubble until one day he decides to join Bravo on a mission. Interesting how this man’s humanity, as depicted by his treatment of the “locals” as people instead of enemies, ends up being, well, unwise. It’s also swell to see Kathryn Bigelow reunited with Ralph Finnes because, for one, it reminds me of “Strange Days” one of my favorite films and one of the best made films of the 90s. The two must be good luck for each other because they’ve done it again! In this film Finnes plays a British soldier of fortune who crosses paths with Bravo as they get caught up in a desert shoot out (because what other kind is there in Iraq?). They come under sniper fire and his prisoners flee. He shoots them right in the back because the reward money is earned dead or alive after all. Here, the film swiftly, and without warning, launches what may be the best sniper showdown ever or at least one rivaling the previous champ “Enemy at the Gates.” Bigelow captures the sniper-to-sniper action not with a sniper’s precision (the industry standard for that kind of scene) but through a fogged out, blurry and out of focus lens. The effect is disorienting–a shot will be fired followed by a few seconds of pregnant pause followed by a puff of smoke from a mile away. Intense stuff.
Kathryn Bigelow is a fantastic director and its nice to finally see her output finally catch up with her talent. Here, she turns a perfectly fine but not earth shattering script (it kind of formless) into something of a dreamy experience. She has not made a condescending, violin playing political critique or some contrived wartime poem (the wretched “Waltz with Bashir”) because that would be too easy as we’ve seen before. She instead treats the film, as one of the hustling Iraqi children would tell Renner, “straight up, nigga.” Straight up is the best description! The feeling that anyone can die and in so many different ways gives the film permanent paranoia but also a permanent combat high. The drama is not manipulative but neither is the action, this is one of the more honest action movie’s I’ve ever seen.
Especially creepy is the way the director captures the Iraqi civilians who, when things go wrong, are seen watching the fumbling-in-the-dark U.S. like ghosts. From our point of view (not to mention the soldiers) that’s scary because we know that all it takes is one of those watchers and one button or call or nod to end everything in sight. Yet we also know they’re not all bad. The feeling of “we shouldn’t be here” is the perfect thematic emotion the film evokes time and time again because it applies to the situation at hand and as a whole. The result is something as exciting as any action movie that will be released this year. Yeah, I know how dare I, one must never write that about something as SERIOUS as America’s War in Iraq. But, really, how much sanctifying on one side and, um, whatever on the other can we endure before telling both sides to shut it. In its own way, this film does. By simply existing, it does.
“War,” we are told by the war junkie Sergeant James, “is a drug.” This country’s is high on it, the Middle East is all to happy to provide it and on we go. If you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.