There has been a veritable onslaught of Iraq war movies over the past few years. Both of the dramatic variety (Jarhead, The Kingdom, Redacted, Stop-Loss) and the documentary (Fahrenheit 9/11, Voices of Iraq, No End in Sight). Some have been pro-America. Most have been anti-war. Some gung-ho chest-thumping, some thought-inducing and philosophical. The one thing they all have in common is their attempt to document, from a non-fiction or fictionalized viewpoint, an event so fresh in moviegoers minds that it is still actually going on to this very day.
What Kathryn Bigelow's new film, The Hurt Locker does, is take a completely different stand on the subject. Without seeming to be pro or anti anything, The Hurt Locker acts as a completely apolitical war film. What Bigelow shows is a group of three men, a bomb disposal crew, going through their daily routine in the craggled streets and bombed-out countryside of Baghdad. Three men who could at any moment, via an explosion, be sent to the "hurt locker". More than war, this film is about the psyche of human nature. We barely even get to see either a US or an Iraqi flag. If not for our pre-conceived knowledge, these men could be from anywhere. This movie could be from anywhere. It could be about anywhere. But this is Iraq and it is real. At least in the sense that it is something going on right this very moment. After all this, The Hurt Locker may well be the most personal war film I have ever seen.
As far as the story itself goes, The Hurt Locker stars Jeremy Renner (a relatively unknown actor who is hopefully going to finally get the recognition he deserves with the release of this film) as Staff Sergeant William James, a wild cowboy soldier who dismantles bombs as if not having a care in the world. One general praises him for the 878 bombs he's defused so far as if he were a sports hero of some sort. The Babe Ruth of Baghdad. He is a gung ho redneck who thrives on the adrenaline that pumps through his veins as he is dismantling bombs. Refusing to wear the protective suit (it's not going to do anything up close and personal anyway) or heed any warnings from his anxious teammates, Sgt. James is a renegade out to prove something to someone, if only to himself.
But James' loose cannon does not play well with his two teammates played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. To these two, their brazen team leader seems the most dangerous man out there. There is even a conversation about killing their superior. It is a strange mix of anger and hate, with a sort of obligatory adoration, that serves these two soldiers only thirty-eight days from going home when they are assigned together. The love/hate tension comes to a boil in the relationship between the racist redneck James and Mackie's African American comrade. Eventually coming to a head the only way it can with men such as these. Mano y mano in a punching contest that, thanks to James' insistence on going too far, ends up with a knife at someones throat.
I could, as many critics have, gone the route of highlighting the (quite obvious) fact that Kathryn Bigelow is a woman. A woman who has made a career out of playing with the boys in the usually male-dominated world of action cinema. With such testosterone-laden films as Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark and K-19: The Widowmaker, not to mention her 1978 student film The Set-Up, which was a thesis on why violence is so seductive (plus she directed a few episodes of the gritty TV drama, Homicide: Life on the Streets) it is almost obligatory to question how a woman filmmaker can make such films. The question is unnecessary though. Male or female, one can have an eye for action. An eye for bravado. An eye for the bonding of men (or women). Bigelow seems to take us to the very edge of cliche but opting instead to face that cliche right down and in a way, mock it.
Bigelow may be a pioneer of sorts, paving the way for future female action directors (if they ever show up), but to delve too deeply into such a theme only sells the filmmaker short. First and foremost, Bigelow is a director. A director who knows how to show action without it seeming comical. Something her male brethren like Michael Bay and his ilk cannot seem to do. Yet it is not this boys club her film seems in simpatico with. The filmic connections to John Ford's The Searchers is rampant throughout The Hurt Locker. So much so that Renner's Sgt. James could be seen as the evolutionary eventuality of John Wayne's iconic Ethan Edwards. Even Bigelow's final shot has Sgt. James, just like Ethan, turning his back on hearth and home and walking into the sunset with his demons.
It is this bravado of character, this seeming death wish attitude that is the focal point of the film. As Renner's Sgt. James goes about his business, done in the most methodical manner and therefore spiking the tension level up to about 11, he is like a machine that can do no wrong – or more appropriately, a machine that, just like Ethan Edwards again, doesn’t care if he does wrong, as long as he gets the job done. It is this very adrenaline rush that he needs to keep on surviving doing what he is doing. There is a scene in a supermarket (while James is back home for a while) which shows this misplaced soldier in an unknown world, his eyes dead to the sterile environment around him. His eyes only alive when he is surrounded by war and getting his fix of action. Just watching this highly intense film is enough action for this critic. I'll leave the high risk jobs to the likes of Sgt. James and his real-life heroic ilk. [07/19/09]