– Summary –
Director : Kathryn Bigelow
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Guy Pearce, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Evangline Lilly, David Morse, Christian Camargo, Ralph Fiennes, Christopher Sayegh, Malcolm Barrett, Sam Spruell.
Year of Release: 2008
Length : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: Follow a squad of ordinance disposal experts as they go about their business during the war in Iraq.
Review : Best Picture Oscar winner for 2009, The Hurt Locker is yet another military opus commanding the critics time for reasons known only to themselves. Overhyped in the wake of the Oscars, this film isn’t as great as you might have thought, although it is still a tense and dramatic piece of low-budget film-making. Don’t make the mistake of substituting “low budget” for “low quality”, because that’s not The Hurt Lockers modus operandi. Technically excellent, the films major problem is it’s characters, and the fact that we’re given nothing new to invest emotionally in. I’d almost say that much of the film is seen-it-all-before generic, but it’s not entirely true. Unfortunately, what little surprises we discover in this film are overpowered by a sense of deja vu in the characters, and while I hate to denigrate a film showing just how brave the soldiers defending our freedoms are, I cannot in good conscience give this film a higher grade. Well made, but overall indifferent.
“You know you can shoot people here, you don’t have to throw wrenches…”
Unflinching, hard-hitting, gritty: The Hurt Locker is everything a war film should be to be successful. After battling it out with the megalithic Avatar for Oscar glory at the 82nd Academy Awards, and coming away with the trophy for Best Picture, it falls to me to determine if Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq conflict tale is indeed worthy of that most auspicious label. The Hurt Locker was almost a never-ran in the cinema industry, before critical buzz began to build for it’s inclusion in many an award ceremony. Here in Australia, it’s distributor Roadshow had deemed it as a direct-to-DVD film not worthy of cinematic release. That position, in light of the aforementioned Oscar glory, has been rethought. As a critic, it’s a tough line to try and trim the sails of such a might victor, considering that Avatar was expected to sweep all before it come Oscar time. Thankfully, Avatar did not, for reasons you’ll uncover in our review of it. But is The Hurt Locker a truly worthy adversary to James Cameron’s monster epic, and should the film have ever been a contender in the first place?
The Hurt Locker is a film about those brave souls in the US army who diffuse bombs set by The Bad Guys. Particularly, those men who serve in Iraq, where the film is set. Filmed on a low budget (compared to Avatar, the budget of which could rival the GDP of a small democratic republic), The Hurt Locker is, as mentioned earlier, tough and uncompromising in it’s portrayal of these brave soldiers. The film never once politicizes the war in Iraq, which is thankfully brave, but rather it deals primarily with the tension, the fear and sheer lunacy these men operate under. Scant regard for the why’s and wherefores, Bigelow and her team have given us a sneeky peek into the bomb disposal job done by many a soldier. And it’s frightening.
William James (Jeremy Renner) joins an Explosive Ordinance Disposal squad in rotation during the Iraq conflict, after the previous technician was killed during a mission. His cavalier attitude and gung-ho style of bomb diffusing quickly lead to the expected angst amongst his fellow squad members, particularly the patriotic Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who sees James as more of a liability to getting home to see his family. As they progress through various missions, bringing them closer to going home, they slowly become more strung out with the mounting pressure to simply live through it. It’s a plight we rarely see safely back here in the West, and I applaud Bigelow for choosing to tell this story. Being brought up on a diet of WWII films and various cowboy movies, as I was, it’s refreshing to see more modern war stories being told. Unlike the Old West, or even Fromelles, Iraq is a whole different theater of war for the Allied troops, with a new set of problems to overcome. Many of which stem from the insurgency which seeks to inflict maximum casualties on the soldiers trying to free the country. There are no Nazis or Indians here, no clearly defined antagonists doing battle with each other; this is raw, sweaty, confusing conflict of the most desperate nature.
I have to say at this point that I think The Hurt Locker is not the best war film I’ve seen, not by a long shot. The film is excellent, for sure, but “the best”? Not quite. First, the positives. The lo-brow doco nature of The Hurt Locker is both dramatically strong and particularly pertinent to capturing the feel and flavor of this story: it’s more a snapshot of battle-weary troops than a defined linear narrative. This kind of hand-held style will no doubt annoy some, but I think The Hurt Locker benefits from this way of shooting. The film “feels” real, that is, the lack of slick editing and dolly tracking camera moves give us more of that raw emotion the lens captures. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who lensed United 93 for Paul Greengrass, has drawn on that style again here, a rapid-fire guerrilla film-making ethos that does it’s job to perfection. Bigelow, a director whose work has always been of the highest caliber technically, if not the most critically acclaimed (her work includes the seminal 80’s vampire flick Near Dark, as well as Point Break and Strange Days, which makes her turn behind the camera for K9: The Widowmaker more baffling than anything!) has excelled at giving her actors the full workout: this film pulls no punches.
The script, written by former embedded journalist Mark Boal, is simple and poignant. The silent battles, the breathless tension, the stark humor employed by the soldiers to combat fatigue and nerves; Boal’s screenplay bristles with the nuances he’d have seen during his career covering the war. No doubt he’s pulled on many of those true experiences in the crafting of this script, and you can see this reality on screen. These people, these soldiers, breath reality, and it’s great to watch. I was impressed also with the low-key score from the very solid Marco Beltrami, one of the better film score composers getting about today. His work here is exceptionally good, never venturing into the braggadocio to sell a point.
Now, the negatives. Great films rely on truly great characters, people we can identify with as an audience to take us on the journey. The Hurt Locker doesn’t have any great characters. It’s hard to give soldiers a real personality behind the rank-and-file orders they carry out, although in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow certainly tries to. But lead actor Renner just isn’t the strongest character (I know, I know, he was nominated for an Oscar for this film: that’s the hardest part about being a critic, if you don’t agree with the consensus people try and shut you down in protest!) and while his portrayal of the insouciant James was solid to the service of the script, the character himself didn’t strike me as being particularly unique. His squad members, especially Mackie, are good enough, but hardly anything new comes from them. There’s the battle-hardened family man, desperate to live through each day and see his wife and child again. There’s the emotionally fractured junior member who is only a bullet ping away from cracking completely and going nuts. All characters we’ve seen before, although this time they’re in a more modern US uniform. I just didn’t get drawn into their story like I’d have expected. It’s not the script, per se, nor the acting, which is typically great right across the board here. Somehow, the film feels a little “samey”, a seen-it-all-before feeling that hinders the films core.
Also a little annoying are the obvious cameo’s by various Hollywood actors, such as David Morse, Ralph Fiennes and Aussie Guy Pearce, which I will admit completely took me out of the realism of the film. Renner’s almost anonymous oeuvre limits the number of people who recognize him: Fiennes and Morse are more familiar and thus, more “Hollywood”, making their token appearances feel forced and cheesy. Evangeline Lilly plays Renners wife back home, and her performance is almost blink-and-miss-it to the extreme. It’s a wonder she even bothered signing up for it. I am also baffled as to how the Academy could vote for the sound work on this film over the top of blockbusters such as Star Trek and Transformers 2, as The Hurt Locker’s soundtrack is solid although not outstanding. This is a minor caveat at best, though, and shouldn’t be the sole reason to be disappointed in the film overall.
Considering that the film is trying to be a character study in humanity during combat, the lack of real character novelty means The Hurt Locker remains, by and large, an above average film at best. Is it good? Yes, and it’s a film worth your time to watch. But is is truly great? Not quite. While I get that many people will think this film a minor masterpiece, I just couldn’t agree with the same fervor.