The Hurt Locker (2008)

reviewed by
Mark R. Leeper

                         THE HURT LOCKER
                (a film review by Mark R. Leeper)
     CAPSULE: An American diffuser from a bomb squad
     in 2004 Bagdad goes from one white-knuckle situation
     to the next.  Just 38 days from being released to go
     home, SFC William James takes one risk after another
     because he cannot give up the excitement of the
     hazardous game.  The film is also an education in
     just how the bomb-defusing job is done.  We see two
     robots defusing the bombs and one is Staff Sgt. James.
     We never get to really know any other side of James.
     He is an addict of the game he plays, and we do not
     know if there is much human inside him.  Rating:
     +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

This is an almost documentary-like portrait of a man who enjoys his job and goes into episode after episode with gusto. It is a job that most people would assume nobody would like. The job is defusing or detonating bombs (technically IEDs or Improvised explosive devices) in Iraq. SFC William James (played by Jeremy Renner) likes living on the very edge. He is like a chess master who glories in keeping ten games going at once, knowing he will beat every single opponent. What is more, he is willing to play with very uneven payoff. If a bomb maker loses, he looses a few hours work and some explosives. James is betting his life and the lives of others. And he does this over and over and over under the watchful eyes of people each of whom could be a bystander or could hold the detonator. To this point he has always won. But when he worked on the first bomb he ever defused he was pushing his luck. Doing it repeatedly while disobeying orders, exasperating his squad leader (Anthony Mackie), and trying to do anything in those cumbersome padded anti-explosion suits goes beyond just pushing his luck. He is committing slow motion suicide. Why does he love this job? Is it the beauty of his surroundings, exotic Bagdad in 2004? That is not very likely. It appears to be just that he loves the competition and cannot give up playing the game. It is an obsession with him that he continues to play, like a kid with a video game. He knows he is good and that makes it impossible for him to stop.

Kathryn Bigelow, director of action films like STRANGE DAYS and K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER directs a film written by Boal. Curiously for such a tense film, the pacing is really slow. A lot of the game is standing still and sizing up your opponent(s) and jockeying for a better position and maybe waiting out a sniper. That takes time and slows the pace. The film could tell us more about what is going on inside the characters, but Bigelow passes up that opportunity.

Almost everything else is done well. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd puts you even a little nearer to the action than you would choose to be. The style is very realistic, except for occasional touches like slow motion to show the dark beauty of a detonation. Other times James in his padded suit looks like he is walking on the moon. There are not even opening titles so that from the first frame the viewer is pulled into the action. One thing pulls us out a little. I did not recognize Renner, but several all-to-familiar actors show up in small roles and pull us out of the action with the game of "Is that... No. Oh wait, yes it is." If you think you see Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, or David Morse, yes, that is him. Go back to the movie. If you think you have seen George Clooney, he is not there.

The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges saying that war is a drug. The drug is adrenaline and its rush does seem to be addictive for people like SFC William James. The film makes that quite clear, but I am not sure it says a whole lot more than that. The film is quite a ride, it could have said so much more. I rate THE HURT LOCKER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. I missed where the title comes from unless it suggests that James keeps all pain locked up inside him.

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                                        Mark R. Leeper
                                        Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper
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