Brave, reckless, bloody and just like war itself

Posted: July 10, 2009

'This doesn't have to be a bad time in your life," the Army shrink tells the soldier. "This could be fun."

Are you kidding?

In Kathryn Bigelow's profoundly tense The Hurt Locker, set in Baghdad in 2004, fun is the last thing on the mind of Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty). Part of a small Bravo Company team assigned to deal with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) buried in street rubble, or strapped to suicide bombers, or concealed in corpses, Eldridge is barely hanging on.

He wants out of Iraq alive, and he's counting down the days.

A white-knuckle war movie that's far and away the strongest of the many Operation Iraqi Freedom dramas - more coherent, more honed-in than even David Simon's Generation Kill series on HBO - The Hurt Locker isn't out to make a political statement.

Bigelow's movie, shot in Jordan by the documentary-trained cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, is about survival, about the adrenaline rush of risk-taking, about the disconnected reality of a combat zone and the addiction of war.

Following a devastating opening sequence that underscores both the cruel impartiality of urban warfare and the locked-on-target intensity with which Bigelow plans to tell her tale, The Hurt Locker introduces Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). A chain-smoking cowboy who takes command of the bomb squad - working with the increasingly jittery Eldridge and the steady veteran Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) - James is ready when the call comes in, donning the heavy protective suit used to approach suspected IEDs.

And then he climbs right out of it again. The suit is cumbersome, it's oven-hot, it cramps his style. He can't get close to the tangle of color-coded wires he needs to unravel, the batteries and trigger mechanisms he has to disengage before he and everybody inside the perimeter are blown to smithereens.

James, a Ranger in from Afghanistan, is reckless, arrogant. He defies protocol; he's not a team player. He's going to get Eldridge and Sanborn killed.

The Hurt Locker follows James and his uneasy partners as they go from one call to the next: to a U.N. compound with a suspicious vehicle parked outside, a Baghdad intersection where soldiers have taken cover, a desert road where a car carrying British mercenaries has broken down.

And everywhere, there are Iraqis looking on from minarets and railway tracks, standing in storefronts cradling cell phones (a potential trigger device) - kids, women, old men. Any one of them is a possible sniper, a detonator, the enemy.

Fused with paranoia and almost unbearable suspense, The Hurt Locker is powerful stuff. Bigelow's close-up filmmaking style is riveting, and the performances from Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are stripped of artifice. Ralph Fiennes, David Morse (as a commanding officer in awe of James) and Guy Pearce are among the supporting players, all working from a spare but revealing screenplay by Mark Boal, a journalist who was embedded with an Army bomb squad.

Five years down the line from when the film takes place, with the U.S. military recently pulled out of Iraq's cities, the first step in the eventual withdrawal, it could be argued that The Hurt Locker is less relevant, less illuminating. That's not the case.

Like all the best war movies - no matter what war, what era - The Hurt Locker goes to the core of human nature. The violence, the bravery, the insanity, the predatory instincts and instinct for survival - they're all here, all exposed on the blood-soaked blocks of Baghdad.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog,

"On Movies Online,"

at http://www.philly.com/

philly/blogs/onmovies/

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