Sometimes a cinema outing turns into exquisite agony. I'm talking about thrillers that make you chew on all 10 fingernails like corn on the cob and hold your breath like a free diver during entire scenes. "The Hurt Locker" is one such film. From the get go, this real-as-it gets drama about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq made me want to curl into a fetal position in my seat.
The film returns us to 2004. The US army may have occupied Baghdad, but these wardens are more like prisoners. Whenever these strangers in a strange land step outside the Green Zone, they're targets for insurgents. We follow three members of the Army's Explosive Ordinance Disposal squad as they defuse booby traps, trip wires, and even suicide bombers. To disarm each explosive, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) gets kitted in gear more cumbersome than that of an astronaut. Sometimes, this particular adrenaline junkie ditches the suit altogether. "If I'm going to die, I gonna die comfortable," James rationalizes at one point. His two spotters, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are exasperated by the Sargeant's reckless disregard for protocol and procedure, putting them at risk as they agitatedly scan their surroundings for hidden snipers.
"The Hurt Locker" pivots around a central question: What kind of men willingly go to work in a minefield? Sanborn, for instance, is a battle-hardened soldier who is more level-headed under fire than his subordinate, Owen. But when he asks James, "Do you think I'm ready for the suit?," the answer is an unequivocal "no." We later find out that he's correct in his assessment.
"The Hurt Locker" is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, an action specialist whose breakout film, "Near Dark" (1987) was a vampire horror set in a Western. (Its most memorable scene finds the vampires holed up in a saloon, desperately trying to avoid deadly shafts of sunlight pouring in through bulletholes in the walls.) Then, "Point Break" -- which seemingly shows up somewhere on cable TV at least once a day -- positioned Bigelow as a go-to action director. But shortly after Bigelow's divorce from James Cameron, the director's "Strange Days," a sci-fi thriller set on the eve of the new millennium, tanked at the box office and received tepid reviews. Five years later, her follow-up movie, "The Weight of Water," barely eked out a DVD release even though it starred Sean Penn. Bigelow's career sunk deeper with "K19: The Widowmaker," a submarine movie memorable only for Harrison Ford's ill-advised attempt at a Russian accent. Since then, the director hasn't troubled the update clerks on imdb very often.
"The Hurt Locker" should change all that. It's Bigelow's best movie and also one of the best-reviewed films of the year. An Oscar nomination for Best Picture seems to be already in the bag. Bigelow's knack for staging an action sequence has never been put to better use. The bomb-defusing sequences are so intense that your arm-pits will sweat like a brick of semtex plastic explosive. Between the big set pieces, Bigelow convincingly depicts the sociological makeup of the male-dominated regiment. Two scenes -- one of drunken roughhousing inside the barracks and another when the trio are pinned down by hillside snipers -- show the audience how these soldiers relieve stress, express emotion, jostle for position, and establish mutual trust.
Alas, this indie -- still barely in cinemas -- has only scraped $12 million to date. The LA Times points out that it's done well for a low-budget film, but its box office is hardly equivalent to what a piss-poor Jennifer Aniston romcom makes in one weekend. Put it down to Iraq-movie fatigue. Viewers want escapism at the movie theater rather than something that resembles a Frontline documentary report.
Thing is, this isn't your typical missive on the Iraq War. It isn't a political film and the filmmakers aren't interested in using the film as a forum to debate whether the invasion of Iraq was justified. The script by Mark Boal -- who also wrote the excellent "In the Valley of Elah" -- matter of factly depicts the pressure cooker environment of war and its mental and physical toil on soldiers. But it's never heavy handed and it doesn't come across as a message movie.
The acting of the lead trio is excellent, particularly Renner in a break-out role. He has the intensity of a young Russell Crowe gilded with an innate likability. Bigelow's casting of largely unknown actors heightens the reality of the film. One feels as if one is watching actual soldiers rather than a familiar Hollywood face in uniform. Unfortunately, the one weakness of the film is that occasionally there's a cameo by a familiar face -- Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce, and Evageline Lily -- and it momentarily reminds you that you're watching a movie. Not for long, though, as the riveting action soon pulls you back in.
This is one of the movies that so effectively plunges you into its world that it's best seen in darkened cinema. It won't have nearly the same effect on DVD, so catch it while you can. You'll thank me afterward -- But only after your heart rate has stabilized.