Film review: The Hurt Locker

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AFTER a seven-year absence, Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow makes a welcome return to big-screen, high-octane film-making with an Iraq war drama that's actually worth watching.

Tightly wound and stripped-down, The Hurt Locker eschews the usual hand-wringing political discussions, war-movie clichs and reductive character types that have accompanied previous cinematic attempts to deal with Iraq (In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Redacted), embedding us instead in the day-to-day grind of a bomb disposal unit nearing the end of a year-long rotation patrolling the streets of Baghdad.

With said streets booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it's a high-tension situation and Bigelow gets the most out of it without resorting to standard action movie theatrics.

When bombs are tripped, she finds new ways to put us in the middle of heart-sickening moments with sparing use of slow motion and smart use of sound effects. When troops come under attack from enemy soldiers, she doesn't treat it as an excuse to deliver amped-up, hardware-heavy gun battles, but chooses to show us precisely calibrated scenes of deadly, palm-sweating sniper shoot-outs, in which every bullet counts. With the baking desert sun making dehydration an issue, she also shows how fumbling with a juice box in a kill-or-be-killed situation is just as crucial has having to wipe the blood off a deceased colleague's ammo clip in order to make it function.

The attention to detail here is astonishing, and it succeeds in making the whole film an even more visceral experience than it would have been had Bigelow resorted to the kind of gut-spilling combat porn favoured by most filmmakers since Saving Private Ryan.

Complementing her approach is a brilliantly nuanced central performance from Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, whose job it is to suit-up and snip the wires. Newly drafted in to Bravo Company after their leader (played by Guy Pearce) is blown up, he has a much more cavalier attitude to the job, one based on extensive experience but one that nonetheless unsettles the rest of his team, specifically Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and the unit's intel officer Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). What's James's MO? There's a hint in the film's epigraph: a quote from renowned Middle East correspondent Chris Hedges about war being a drug and battle a lethal and potent addiction.

This immediately suggests that, like Point Break, Bigelow is going to present us with another film about adrenaline junkies, only this time in the most high-pressure job there is. Turns out, that's exactly what she does do, except that Bigelow has Renner internalise that addiction. He's presented as the loner, the maverick, the cowboy character who breaks all the rules but always gets the job done, but she never allows him to play to those types and Renner excels at conveying instead the darker psychological aspects of this type of character, something that's beautifully illustrated in an understated scene that shows him quietly failing to cope with the mundane realities of life in the civilian world.

Mercifully, The Hurt Locker eliminates the specious nobility that other Iraq war films have conferred upon soldiers fighting in Iraq. There's no wishy-washy oppose the war/support the troops agenda here. Instead, it obliquely addresses these characters' status as one of the first generations to actively enlist for duty, even after all the movies detailing the graphic horrors of combat.

In short, it presents us with troops who, for whatever reason, actually want to be there because the life suits them… because they're wired that way.

Of course, there's an element of Catch-22 to this and, as Geraghty's character confronts his own fears as he tries to come to terms with whether or not he could have saved a colleague, the film encourages us to question the sanity of those in the field, particularly the more bravado-fuelled fighters. Bigelow doesn't sledgehammer us with such things, nor does she make big pronouncements on reasons for the war. Instead, in narrowing her focus, she provides a intelligent study of machismo and how it emerges in a male-dominated environment where fear and mistrust thrive in every alleyway, every window, every shop front and every car driving down the street. It feels like a truthful attempt to get to the heart of how soldiers function in an impossible situation.

Bigelow draws us into this close, contained world with a lot of hand-held camera work. It's a technique that is now so commonplace it's almost a clich, but she at least knows how to use it properly. Disorientating us without destroying the rhythm of a shot or obscuring what's going on, her docu-drama realism complements her cinematically staged action sequences, giving the whole film an exhilarating but believable edge. It's impressive stuff, intensely thrilling film-making with a pulse and a brain.