Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/9/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker tells the story of a bomb squad working on the streets of Iraq defusing bombs during the war. Leading the team is a man who loves doing the job for the hell of it while trying to deal with the chaos surrounding him with members of his team watching him. A part war-drama, part-psychological film, it's a movie that delves into the mind of what a bomb squad goes through in defusing bombs and being a soldier at war. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, and David Morse. The Hurt Locker is a mesmerizing yet haunting war drama from Kathryn Bigelow and company.
It's 2004 in Baghdad as a new member of an elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit named Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is now part of a new group filled by Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Elridge (Brian Geraghty). With 40 days left in their tour of duty, James has already become an eccentric figure as he refuses to take orders in order to get the job done. Even as he comes across one bomb attached to another which he defuses quite well despite a bit of pressure. Though Sanborn is frustrated over James' no-frills, all thrills attitude and his willing to put himself on the line. Elridge is already going through his own problems following the death of a superior (Guy Pearce) as he is now having psychological sessions with Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo). James meanwhile, feels at home in the line of duty and at war as he befriends a 12-year old Iraqi kid named Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) while defusing bombs all for the hell of it.
Then when a bomb site is nearby a United Nations building, James diffuses it quite successfully except bringing lots of anxiety to his team in taking off his bomb suit and refusing to wear headphones to listen to Sanborn's orders. Impressed by James' ability to just diffuse bombs is Colonel Reed (David Morse) who is amazed over James' experience in diffusing bombs. Though James reveals to have a life at home with a wife (Evangeline Lilly) and a baby boy, he prefers to work as a bomb tech without robots and go with his gut. When he, Sanborn, and Elridge encounter a group of contractors led by its leader (Ralph Fiennes), they are ambushed by a group of Iraqi militia where things get tense as Sanborn and Elridge with James' help manages to diffuse the situation. While it was a great day for the three as they all got drunk and beat each other up for fun, it was like all three men has finally clicked. With the days winding down, some traumatic events occur for all three that would shape their minds. With James getting more personal and even putting his own team in danger, everything would crash down for the three men with James starting to unravel over his life as a soldier and at home.
Films about the Iraq war in recent years has been filled with a lot of overwrought melodrama despite its noble intentions to reveal the horrors of war and in the injustice soldiers have to face. What makes this film very different is that it's about three men just doing their job as they all face their own personal turmoil inside of themselves. Of those three, it's William James that is the most compelling as he's a man that loves to take risks in order to get the job done and diffuse situations. Yet, he's also reckless, refusing to take orders, and is always on an adrenaline rush. James is a loose cannon but does have a compassionate side when he befriends an Iraqi kid who sells him DVDs and plays soccer with him though he has a hard time being that person at home despite his noble efforts.
Screenwriter Mark Boal does a superb job in creating a unique structure to the story which begins with a scene involving a bomb about to be diffused by the previous bomb tech. The first act is about Staff Sgt. James arrival to the unit while proving to be a unique figure to his team like the by-the-book Sgt. Sanborn and the young, insecure Specialist Elridge. Both of whom each are given some development and insight into their own characters with Sanborn trying to be in control while Elridge is haunted by his own issues where in some intense moments, he's comforted by James. Boal's screenplay is well-structured in not just introducing the character but providing a strong second act for the characters to finally bond and click with each other while the third act would unveil some harsh truths and situations involving the main three characters.
While Boal's script does manage to delve into the psychological elements of what is going on in battle and in diffusing a bomb along with the soldier's experience. It's Kathryn Bigelow's direction that is really the highlight of the film. Bigelow's engaging approach to the film by getting inside the battlefield, inside the action, and all of the drama that goes on is really what sets this film apart from not just the Iraq war films that came before in the past few years is that it's not melodramatic. At the same time, it is not very stylized, not filled with lots of CGI creations, or anything that is sprawling in its action scenes. Instead, it goes deep into the action with gun battles, explosions, and the tension that goes in diffusing a bomb while the soldiers have to look out to see if the enemy is watching. Utilizing a hand-held approach to the camera work in capturing all of the action and intensity. Bigelow's direction is truly remarkable in just being real, to-the-point, and not overglazing it with fast action, bloated scenery, or lifeless spectacles.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd does amazing work with the film's gritty, hand-held photography with elements of grainy shots in some of the nighttime scenes with little light. The action scenes are filled with close-ups of the action with camera blurs to emphasize a point-of-view shot from a sniper. Ackroyd's cinematography is exhilarating in its realism and in not being over-stylized. Editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski do excellent work in the film's editing in providing some nice jump-cuts for some rhythmic editing along with rhythms to play up to the tension that is going in scenes where bombs are diffused or in the action. While it has a running time of nearly two-hours and fifteen minutes, it does have the feeling or pacing approach of a film that long which is brilliant as Innis and Murawski do some masterful work in the editing.
Production designer Karl Juliusson, along with set decorator Amin Charif El Masri and art director David Bryan, does fine work in the creation of bases and camps that the soldiers live in along with the designs of the bombs and devices. Costume designer George L. Little does good work in the design of the bomb suit that Jeremy Renner wears in order to unveil all of the detail of what bomb technicians have to wear. Sound designer/editor Paul N.J. Ottosson does spectacular work with the film's sound work in its action sequences and moments of suspense to add tension to all that is going on. Music composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders provide an excellent score with haunting arrangements from strings and drums to provide the tension and drama that is going on in the war scenes. For the film's soundtrack, three tracks are provided from the legendary industrial-metal band Ministry from their Rio Grande Blood album as it serves as amazing accompaniment for James' state of mind.
The casting by Mark Bennett is superb with appearances from Lost's Evangeline Lilly as Staff Sgt. James' wife, Hasan Darwish as a DVD vendor, Nabil Koni as a professor William visits, and Christopher Sayegh as Beckham, the boy Staff Sgt. James befriends. Christian Camargo is very good as Elridge's psychologist who may know what soldiers go through but has little experience in what goes on when they're on the battlefield. Making appearances in some very small roles include Guy Pearce as a bomb tech, David Morse as a lively colonel, and Ralph Fiennes as a British contractor carrying a sniper rifle. Brian Geraghty is excellent as Elridge, a young soldier who is dealing with the horrors of war as he tries to cope with it the best he can do. Anthony Mackie is superb as Sgt. Sanborn, the straight man of the story as he is the man who does things by the book while trying to deal with James' reckless persona as well as his own horrors about life after war.
Finally, there's Jeremy Renner in what is truly a remarkable performance. In the role of Staff Sgt. William James, Renner displays a swagger and nonchalant attitude to his character as a man who loves his job and is willing to take all the risks. While he has a compassionate side to him, Renner displays all of the conflict his character has to go through when he knows he has to go home. Yet, he couldn't help but be on an adrenaline rush when he knows that there's something wrong and he wants to go out there and fight. It's truly a star-making performance for the actor who has been famous for supporting roles and small parts as he's now an actor to watch out for.
The Hurt Locker is a sensational film from Kathryn Bigelow thanks to an amazing performance from Jeremy Renner. In an era of heavy-handed, melodramatic war films that does nothing but rally around a political message along with action films that are all spectacles and no sense of what is happening. This is the film that corrects all of those things in what is expected from their genres. Fans of smart action films and war films will no doubt enjoy this film for its sheer realism and ideas of what soldiers have to go through. For director Kathryn Bigelow, this film is truly her best work to date while it may not be as entertaining as Point Break or Strange Days. Yet, in a genre that's dominated by men helming action features. This film proves that not only can she do a great action film. It also proves that she's better than the guys in creating great explosions and action scenes. In the end, for a film that is smart, entertaining, and filled with great action sequences. The Hurt Locker is the film to go see.
Kathryn Bigelow Films: The Loveless - Near Dark - Blue Steel - Point Break - Strange Days - The Weight of Water - K-19: The Widowmaker - Zero Dark Thirty - The Auteurs #29: Kathryn Bigelow
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