MOVIES | Exhilarating suspense in Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

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Before you can get comfortable in your seat or even turn off your phone, a quote from former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges flashes onscreen: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” By this time, you’d better be strapped in and prepared to hold on for director Kathryn Bigelow’s invigorating and masterful The Hurt Locker, now playing at the Uptown Theatre.

Bigelow, who had not directed since 2002, has earned a cult following with such genre films as Point Break, the surfer action film with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze; the vampire Western Near Dark; and a forgotten sci-fi head-trip gem from the 90s, Strange Days, starring Ralph Fiennes, who also appears briefly in The Hurt Locker. Working from a script by freelance writer Mark Boal, who himself was entrenched in Iraq in 2004 with an anti-bomb squad, The Hurt Locker only adds to Bigelow’s cachet: it’s an up-close-and-personal slow burn action film that’s nothing short of a marvelous achievement in filmmaking, storytelling, editing, and acting.

Rather than dealing with the confusing politics of the Iraq war, The Hurt Locker throws the viewer right into the field of battle in Baghdad 2004, with three members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad combing areas of Iraq to locate Improvised Explosion Devices (IED) and defusing them (mainly with a remote controlled car) until the newest member, wild man Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, in a starmaking performance) shakes things up with his unconventional approach. The squad’s previous leader, Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce), followed the standard procedure in defusing bombs, whereas James walks coolly up to the bombs, sometimes even without his protective gear on, turning off his radio, concentrating on clipping the live wires and making split-second decisions.

No film this year has displayed such nerves of steel so vividly as The Hurt Locker does in the opening ten minutes alone, as Bigelow builds exhilarating suspense along with added tension, depicting Iraqis watching from dilapidated buildings and makeshift houses—they’re just as intrigued by the process of defusing IEDs as the audience is. James is a showoff but he gets the job done, much to the chagrin of his company members Sanborn (an outstanding Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who are more concerned about surviving their last 38 days in Bravo Company before being switched out with new members than in going along with loose cannon James.

As the men get closer and closer to their last day, they start to bond and are anxious about surviving, more so than they were before the seemingly reckless James showed up. Undeniably, though, James excels in defusing bombs—873, to be exact—but eventually he loses his cool. Scenes featuring James outside of battle, including scenes depicting a friendship with a local boy he buys pirated DVDs from and plays soccer with, are heart-wrenching. James clearly is a complex alpha male who is a thrill seeker addicted to the rush of risktaking. Renner convincingly portrays James as an unapologetic “war junkie.” Not since Vincent D’Onofrio’s devastating portrayal of Pvt. Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has a soldier in a war film stuck with me like James has.

In the last few years, American and foreign films dealing with war—documentary or fiction, independent or studio—have by and large been box office bombs, but The Hurt Locker deserves attention as an original film that does not boggle us with any one-sided preaching or overt political agendas. Bigelow’s film plays like a documentary at times, striking fear into the viewer, engaging us with visceral images and compelling character studies, that show soldiers to be vulnerable humans too, dealing with not only the stress of battle but also with day-to-day life that is often mundane. Credit should also be given to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editors Bob Murawski and Chris Innis especially for inventive POV shots with cameras attached to James in the field and, in one sequence, a surprise sniper attack. With extreme close-ups of everything from blood on bullets to the sweat and heat from the guys taking cover, the atmosphere seems to float right off the screen—even a Capri Sun juice packet looks vital. The film also features articulate shots ranging from fluid jump cuts to a beautifully captivating widescreen shot of the men looking for an ambivalent enemy.

Now that the Academy has expanded the field from five to ten best picture nominees, there should be no reason for The Hurt Locker not to score a best picture nomination along with a deserving nod to Bigelow for best director; perhaps Renner could even score a nod for one of the year’s best performances. With five months still left in 2009, The Hurt Locker has set itself up to be on many year-end top ten lists. It’s already reached the top of mine.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.

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