Before The Hurt Locker is anything else, it’s a first-class action movie. This tense and muscular film unfolds in and around various Iraq war zones but isn’t really an “Iraq War film.” It follows a bomb-squad unit, headed by risk addict Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who by his own count has disarmed 873 bombs. We don’t know whether James is brave or crazy or both, but we do sense that he wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. He doesn’t get cranked up before a mission — a Zen-like calm seems to fall over him. He knows how bombs work, and he knows how to make them not work. He’s in his element.
So is the director, Kathryn Bigelow. Absent from the big screen for too long, Bigelow was born to make action-thrillers (see Point Break or Strange Days), and The Hurt Locker may well be her masterpiece, the perfect fusion of director and material. Bigelow loves techno-POV shots; they were all over Strange Days, and this film opens with one, the staticky view of a radio-controlled robot rolling towards a concealed explosive. The action in The Hurt Locker is loose, caught on the fly and documentary-like, yet still perfectly readable. We always know exactly where the bomb squad is in relation to danger, and things slow way down during a shoot-out between snipers in the desert, during which any number of things go wrong (the ammo salvaged off of a freshly killed soldier keeps jamming because it’s too bloody, etc.). The action is frighteningly credible.
The movie is a salute to the soldiers who go in and get it done in the worst possible conditions, though it’s not an unabashed salute. James’ squad members occasionally freak out and break down; James keeps powering through, a good man (he takes care to treat the locals humanely) with some serious problems. Jeremy Renner, a great actor who deserves to be much better known than he is, shows flashes of the death wish under James’ laid-back demeanor. His men even briefly flirt with the idea of fragging him, because they figure he’ll get them all killed — is he a genius or just extraordinarily lucky? Either way, he chuckles as he strides into yet another death-trap, and speaks almost tenderly to the bomb components, some of which he keeps under his bunk later.
There’s not a scrap of politics in The Hurt Locker, as there also wasn’t in last year’s unfairly dismissed Stop-Loss — perhaps coincidentally, also directed by a woman (Kimberly Peirce). The two movies simply strive to be true to the experiences of those who serve or have served in Iraq. The film’s coda is almost a miniature Stop-Loss — a soldier comes home and can’t deal with things like chopping up carrots for dinner or shopping for cereal, and stop-losses himself right back into the fray.
Like its hero, the movie needs its adrenaline fix, but never at the expense of the drama that keeps the anecdotal narrative going. It comes by its thrills honestly, never losing sight of the potential cost in lives. These soldiers do their jobs while acutely aware they could be killed by some of the same people they’re trying to save, but they try anyway. The Hurt Locker goes far beyond action into almost existential excitement, fear, despair (one soldier bemoans how nobody except his parents, who “don’t count,” will care if he’s killed in action). Kathryn Bigelow has shown Hollywood how it’s done: The Hurt Locker is the strongest and most satisfying thriller in years.