Friday, July 24, 2009

Film review: The Hurt Locker

When I first heard the film title The Hurt Locker, it imbued in me a sense of wariness. I immediately inferred it would not meet my standards nor would it be something that appealed to me. Knowing nothing about it, I pictured a shirtless Channing Tatum 'stepping up 2 the streets' to reprise his role in a Fighting sequel. And, if it was set in Iraq, I hoped it wasn’t another Stop-Loss.

Fortunately, this Kathryn Bigelow film is nearly its antithesis, and the title refers to 'a place of ultimate pain,' not a pseudo-fight club for incorrigibles. She takes a fragmentary approach to the war in Iraq rather than making a grand statement, and she shows tremendous skill in capturing it. The Hurt Locker says more about the war experience than the batch of recent Iraq war cinematic flops of the past six years. The paucity of dead spots in its 131-running time demands your attention throughout.

Set in Baghdad in 2004, the film chronicles the remaining 38 days in the tour of the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad, men trained to dismantle improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) steps in to replace a deceased team leader. His cocky, rebellious attitude infringes upon a professional line of communication with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, back to Iraq after Jarhead). The viewer feels like a member of the team as they inch closer to potentially deadly situations.

The episodic narrative structure is divided into a series of taut, intense set pieces. The first scene contains so much tension it becomes almost unbearable and the release of it is shocking but not gratuitous. Bigelow and screenwriter/imbedded freelance journalist Mark Boal worked particularly hard to ensure the explosions and brimming adrenaline did not dominate the show. Actions instead determine character when a reliance on dialogue and contrived soldier bonding scenes would have inadequately conveyed their lifestyle.

James and Sanborn are two different men with divergent goals and methods. This isn’t apparent in their first meeting on the base, but in the next scene on a mission, we suddenly know them well.

There is a tender moment involving a Capri Sun juicebox, among other wordless exchanges. The visual details – a hot kettle, a kite, James’ helmet - are a salient part of the mise-en-scene as the camera chooses to linger on them.

Guy Pearce, David Morse and Ralph Fiennes each have cameo-size roles respectively as a sergeant, colonel and contract team leader.

A few quibbles: a couple missions seemed unrealistic, and the ending could have been trimmed. Otherwise, this is one of the best films released so far this year and its magnetic, tenacious depiction of war enthralls you until the end.

Channing, I suggest you give it a try.

The Hurt Locker opens nationwide today.

HIPNESS RATING: 8 out of 10
ACTUAL RATING: 9 out of 10

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