THE HURT LOCKER **** (2009) movie review by COOP

Posted on August 4th, 2009
Posted on August 4th, 2009

Finally, a movie about Iraq that doesn’t belabor politics or force partisan beliefs upon the viewer.  Much like Black Hawk Down before it, The Hurt Locker portrays soldiers as heroes, keeping their heads under frighteningly dangerous conditions.  While Black Hawk Down told this story on a grand, action-packed scale, The Hurt Locker brings it down to a more intimate level, telling the tale of a three-man first response team that disarms improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

When Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) lose their ace bomb disarmer (Guy Pearce) to a booby-trapped explosive device, a new team member arrives.  Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) operates from the Martin Riggs Lethal Weapon school of bomb disarming.  His actions seem so reckless and suicidal that Sanborn and Eldridge fear for their lives, but like Riggs in Lethal Weapon, James isn’t crazy.  He’s the best at what he does and eventually proves it as the team becomes entangled in increasingly dangerous situations.  But in a place where the threat can come from anywhere at anytime, they’ll need all their skill and bravery to make it to the last day of their company’s rotation. 

This is Director Kathryn Bigalow’s first interesting movie since Strange Days premiered all the way back in 1995.  She’s got a couple of undisputed classics under her belt (Point Break and Near Dark) and it’s about time she got back on the trolley.  I once took a class called “Women in Film” where the professor trashed Bigalow, saying the director’s work was irrelevant because she directed films as if “she was just one of the boys.”   …as if that were something shameful.  Up yours, professor.  If Jane Campion could direct an action scene half as good Bigalow, I might’ve taken your class more seriously. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a nonstop action film.  Slow stretches bog the film down, the pacing is largely uneven and the story is episodic rather than following a traditional 3-act structure.  It’s an indie quasi-art film, BUT…  It’s an indie quasi-art film that even mainstream moviegoers can easily identify with and enjoy.  It has teetered on the edge of a big-ticked, wide release, but without recognizable stars or a familiar plot structure, it’s obvious the powers-that-be didn’t have enough faith in it.

That’s too bad considering the buzz it’s gotten and the number of people I’ve encountered who said they’re anxious to see it, but it’s not playing at any theater near them. 

Conversely, don’t be fooled into thinking the film doesn’t have enough action, because it’s got plenty.  Disarming bombs while snipers take pot shots at you and while terrorists try to detonate it before you dismantle… These are scenes I’ve never seen in a film before.  They are suspenseful and exciting.  There’s even a brilliant counter-sniper scene that could’ve held its own with any major Hollywood blockbuster.

And it has big stars, albeit they only appear in small cameos.  Guy Pearce doesn’t survive past the first 10 minutes of the film (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the first act).  Ralph Fiennes gets a five minute role as a British merc trying to cash in on the capture of some ranking Jihadists.  David Morse plays an officer overwhelmingly impressed by Sgt. James’ unflinching heroism and Evangeline Lily has about one minute of screen time total as James’ wife.  Giving these recognizable actors bigger parts could’ve helped give the film more exposure but something tells me Bigalow couldn’t afford them.

I’m counting this film as Jeremy Renner’s big breakout role.  He’s been around for awhile, getting quiet praises for his brilliant performance playing Jeffery Dahmer in 2002’s Dahmer.  He also played the lead villain opposite Colin Farrell in 2003’s S.W.A.T. and got a cult following of fans as the fearless U.S. sniper-with-a-conscience Doyle in the 2007 horror movie 28 Weeks Later.  Those of us in the know have been watching Renner closely, knowing that he’s been on the cusp of stardom and with The Hurt Locker, I believe he’s finally hit the jackpot.  Rumors are starting to swirl that he’s a contender to take over Mel Gibson’s role in a new Mad Max film.  Hope you’ve been brushing up on your Australian accent, Jeremy. 

I recently talked to someone who saw The Hurt Locker after recently returning from a tour in Iraq.  She liked the film and appreciated how it didn’t patronize the situation, the soldiers or try to make a political statement other than “support our troops and praise their bravery.”  I myself am from the school of thought that believes making obviously pro-partisan, anti-war, non-satirical propaganda films while the conflict still rages on will one day be seen by soldiers as the 21st Century equivalent to hippies spitting on G.I.s at the airport or Jane Fonda partying in front of POWs in Hanoi (cue an inbox full of hate mail). 

Bigwig Hollywood filmmakers seem to be at a loss as to why their Iraq/Afghanistan anti-war films tank at the box office.  From a non-Hollywood perspective the reason seems clearer:  The vast majority of soldiers, soldiers’ families and those who support the troops no matter their opinions on the war(s) would much rather see films that reward valor and heroism than a film that gives us all a stern political lecture on how war is wrong and our leadership is foolish.  People know the score, and understand the situation (it’s on the news everyday).  Citizens can make their own decisions about the politics of war and they trust Hollywood even less than the U.S. Government when it comes to opinions on the subject.  The best movies about Vietnam came after the conflict when Americans had a chance to recover and reflect on the consequences.  I think the same logic applies here.  (off the soapbox in 3… 2…1…)

The Hurt Locker is the type of war movie Americans (even soldiers overseas) are craving.  I suspect it will be a sleeper hit, especially when it hits DVD.  It might even say it could win a few awards.  If it’s in a theater close to you, don’t miss it. 

4 out of 5 stars.



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