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Movie Review: The Hurt Locker
Cinema Junkie   |  

The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly
Rated R
Released date: June 26, 2009

“When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”
— Captain Benjamin L. Willard from Apocalypse Now

“Death is the best kick of all. That’s why they save it for last.”
— Eugene Hunt from Blue Steel

“Life sure has a sick sense of humor, doesn’t it?”
— Bodhi from Point Break

The Hurt Locker: The Ultimate Adrenaline Junkie

The ecstasy of war is at the heart of Kathryn Bigelow‘s brilliant new action thriller, The Hurt Locker. We only need to read the now famous quote from journalist and author Chris Hedges that precedes the film, “War is a drug”, to realize that Ms. Bigelow is the right person to bring Mark Boal‘s screenplay to life. If anyone knows about an addiction to violence and an addiction to the rush of pure adrenaline, it is Kathryn Bigelow. Her previous films such as Near Dark, Blue Steel, Strange Days, K-19: The Widowmaker, and most importantly Point Break deal with adrenaline junkies of one sort or another. She has a natural ability to strip away the fat from subcultures to provide us with a crystal clear acumen of her fascination with them. Her examination of the Army’s elite Explosive Ordinance Squad (EOD) is an exercise in exhilarating and harrowing tension.

The film possesses a level of intensity that few films can match. The Hurt Locker is the thinking person’s action film. Ms. Bigelow has won the pissing contest of 2009, everyone else can go home. She has a natural ability to take all the elements to create a potent and thrilling portrait. Her money shots put the competition to shame this year. She is a master at staging suspenseful and harrowing action sequences. The Hurt Locker has some of the best in recent memory. The Hurt Locker is the epitome of cinematic suspense.

I would be selling The Hurt Locker rather short if I said it was the best film made about the Iraq War. I would still be selling it short if I said it was a great war film. The Hurt Locker is an excellent film, period. The film transcends the war genre altogether. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket both display the agony, insanity, and ecstasy of war. The films are volatile annihilation mixes. Lawrence Of Arabia takes place during World War I, but let us face it: David Lean’s epic is about so much more.

The Hurt Locker could have easily take place during any war. The film wisely throws away the political baggage that has dragged down so many films that deal with the Iraq War so far. So far the only non-documentary film of the war that has any traction with me is Kimberly Peirce’s underrated Stop-Loss which focused more on the lives of soldiers on the home front. On television, HBO’s Generation Kill , the acclaimed series was based on Evan Wright’s engrossing book of the same name, is the only narrative to get it right. David Simon, creator of The Wire, did an excellent job transplanting Rolling Stone’s Evan Wright’s war journalism to the small screen. Otherwise, it has been documentaries like No End In Sight, The Ground Truth, The War Tapes, Gunner Palace, and several others that made a lasting impact.

While The Hurt Locker does not take any kind of political stand, it is certainly not a pro-war film like John Wayne’s hyper-jingoistic The Green Berets. Finally, we have a film that presents the present situation to us as if we are flies on the wall. And while Peter Berg’s The Kingdom appealed to both sides of the aisle, the film’s message was that the FBI should fight the War on Terror overseas. The Hurt Locker dispenses with any kind of preaching. Mark Boal’s screenplay shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of war. His screenplay is based on interviews he conducted with U.S. troops while embedded as a magazine writer in 2004. He also wrote the story for the Paul Haggis film, In The Valley Of Elah, for which Tommy Lee Jones was the major strength of that uneven film. Mark Boal’s smart and authentic screenplay is one of the reasons The Hurt Locker works so well. Like Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, it is grounded in reality. It helps to have someone of Ms. Bigelow’s skill bring those words to life. While watching The Hurt Locker, one wonders what Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead, would make of it. His memoir was about the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The book, like the Sam Mendes directed film, depicts men looking for their war. It would seem that The Hurt Locker would be their kind of war porn.

A trio of brave men lead us through a series of dangerous demolition encounters which make up the daily lives of the soldiers of Bravo Company. Their lives are a daily ritualistic dance with death. The three men have only 38 days to go before the end of their rotation. There is the down to earth Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who seems too nice to be in such a wretched place; the ever reliable, Anthony Mackie plays Specialist J.T. Sanborn, who strictly adheres to protocol as the best way to survive; and last, but by no means least, is Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, the adrenaline junkie of the film. He thrives on the rush of the job, the thrill of the process. It is within the insanity of war where he is most comfortable. To Sanborn, he is “reckless” and to Eldridge he is “a rowdy boy.” These are the first impressions that James makes on his first day on the job with the Explosive Ordinance Squad. Make no mistake about it; this is Jeremy Renner’s breakout performance. After promising roles in films such as Dahmer, North Country, 28 Weeks Later, and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Renner creates one of the most memorable adrenaline junkies of Kathryn Bigelow’s career. He has the same kind of extreme zeal that Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi exhibited so well in Point Break.

Jeremy Renner’s William James is a cross between Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi from Point Break, Steve McQueen’s Captain Buzz Rickshaw from The War Lover, Anthony Andrews’s Brian Ash from the British television series, Danger UXB mixed with some of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence Of Arabia. William James is the classic Kathryn Bigelow character, the ultimate adrenaline junkie. Renner’s performance exhibits the perfect hybrid — a cross between Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. William James is very sure of himself; he exudes arrogance and charisma in equal measure. The way he performs his job is a mixture of extreme heroism and suicidal death wishes. His lack of protocol, his lack of discipline is at odds with how Sanborn would like the job done. Mackie’s Sanborn does not have the patience with James’ loose cannon mentality. For example, in one harrowing sequence, James dismantles a car bomb without wearing any of the protective gear. It is too hot and bulky for him to wear in this instance. Needless to say, this makes Sanborn and Eldridge even more nervous. They have to protect themselves as well as the Iraqi civilians nearby. While Jeremy Renner’s performance is worth all of the accolades it has received so far, Anthony Mackie deserves equal praise for his performance as J.T. Sanborn. He is quiet and sane compared to William James. He is the film’s moral compass. He has watched men die doing the exact job that William does. Mackie has screen presence. He has also been in Eagle Eye, Notorious, She Hate Me, Half Nelson, Million Dollar Baby and several others. Mackie’s Sanborn leaves a vivid impression. He is trying to survive like everyone else in the unit, but James’ daredevil exploits try his patience and sanity at every turn. He is an excellent contrast to Renner’s James who is addicted to danger. Ralph Fiennes, David Morse , and Guy Pearce have brief roles in the film which only sharpens the canvas that Bigelow has created.

The elimination of politics in The Hurt Locker is a blessing. The audience never feels like it is being preached to or patronized. After some of the recent Iraq War themed films, it is rather refreshing point of view. By focusing on the lives of soldiers, Ms. Bigelow grounds the film in raw emotion and intensity. She focuses on this particular subculture and makes us feel a part of their daily existence, just as she has done in all of her films up to this point. The human element with the emphasis on the interaction between the soldiers is what made Stop-Loss and Generation Kill work so well. While watching The Hurt Locker, the bond that develops among the soldiers reminded me of the loyal bonds that were created among the soldiers in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. More importantly, the film harks back to some of the great films about the Vietnam War: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and especially The Boys In Company C. It is Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys In Company C that strikes a common cord in all of these films. The relationship that develops between William James and a Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs reminded me of the relationship that the soldiers had with the Vietnamese civilians in that film.

There is a great sequence where they encounter British soldiers in the desert surrounding Baghdad. They come under enemy sniper fire. During this gun battle, James helps Eldridge with rifle clips. The bullet clips have blood on the bullets. James shows Eldridge how to get the blood off by spitting on them. It’s a unique bonding scene in the midst of great chaos. It is one of many beautifully frenetic action sequences in the film. The lives of these three men are a vivid reminder of Bigelow’s strength in delving into particular subcultures as she did with the vampires in Near Dark and the surfers in Point Break.

Barry Ackroyd‘s cinematography is intimate and breathtaking. He also did the cinematography for Paul Greengrass’ United 93. As with that great film, his camerawork lets the audience have a fly on the wall appreciation of everything that is going on; we feel the tension in every scene. Ackroyd also did the camera work for The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Battle In Seattle which share many of the same techniques and precisions as The Hurt Locker. He has a great eye and it is refreshing to see he is working with Paul Greengrass again on the upcoming Green Zone, which is also about the Iraq War.

The musical score composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is outstanding. I hear shades of Jonny Greenwood’s opulent, epic score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood within the compositions by these two men. There Will Be Blood is surely one of the great epics of recent American cinema; there is a manic energy within both films that refuses to quit. The musical scores of both films fuel that cinematic fire.

At the end of the day, The Hurt Locker works on every level. It is war film which transcends the genre. Kathryn Bigelow builds on her own impressive filmography and eliminates the flaws of other films in the Iraq War genre that lead them to the box office poison bin. She has managed to make an intelligent action film that packs an enormous punch at the time of the closing credits. The audience is left rattled and exhilarated at the same time. While she has taken the politics out of the film, she has not taken the meaning out of the film. This could be a film about any group of people and their dedication to their work. It could almost be a Michael Mann or David Fincher film with the way we see these men go about their work, but in many ways this film is better. Kathryn Bigelow has a way of making films that are incredibly relevant. Her underrated Strange Days could not have been released at a more appropriate time; the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson Murder Trail in 1995. While Strange Days took place in the near future, it was more about the present than anything else. It never got the acclaim or attention it deserved. The Hurt Locker manages to make its own commentary toward the end. The actions of the characters will surprise no one who is paying attention. William James is a cocky daredevil, a true war lover if you will. He thrives in the heat of the action, just like Kathryn Bigelow. The Hurt Locker is a true commemoration of men at work and men at war.


  1. So, you’re basically saying this movie is better Iraq War film because it chooses to be blindly pro-soldier ?

    There is more to war than just a buncha buddies running around, fighting in ‘ camaraderie ‘. There’s imperialism. There’s the implications. There’s deprivation of freedoms. There’s casualties.

    You say it’s an intelligent action film, but it’s looking indistinguishable from playing Call of Duty with your friends. No offense to videogames…

    Comment by One question — August 2, 2009 @ 4:42 am

  2. I saw this movie last night and was really disapppointed. What are people thinking? This movie is not evening in the quality of Oscar movies.

    Comment by Debbie Casey — August 2, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  3. I consider The Hurt Locker to be an anti-war film. The absence of politics in it highlights the utter meaninglessness of the violence of the war and of the men who fight one another brutally when they are not fighting the “enemy.” The Hurt Locker is also a feminist film. The movie begins with the men talking about bombs and the size of their penises. Towards the end after many near-death incidents and constant violence, one of the principle characters says, “I want a son, I want a son.” For what? To continue the cycle of war and violence? There are other indications in this superb movie that it is both anti-war and feminist.

    Comment by Marilyn — August 2, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

  4. To me, this movie works so well because it doesn’t have a “message”, it just shows what is. The soldiers are neither hyper-macho or too sensitive. Why wouldn’t a soldier be both a very good soldier when doing his job, and yet also worry about the future and want a family? These men are not one-dimentional characatures, but fully realized people.

    I saw this film with a conservative friend (I’m a hippie-pacifist), and we both thought that it was excellent, with the larger point that neither of us felt it was either pro-war or anti-war, but just showed what IS without editorial comment from the director.

    Comment by SM — August 3, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  5. How can you possibly link up one of the characters wanting a son with the continuation of violence?. So because he said son instead of daughter it has to be assumed the kid is gonna decide to go to war to kill iraquis?.

    The most sexist remark i have heard all week…very feminist of you.

    Comment by Jbosborn. — August 9, 2009 @ 1:14 am

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