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When a new sergeant, James, takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team amidst violent conflict, he surprises his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge by recklessly plunging them into a deadly game of urban combat. As the men struggle to control their wild new leader, the city explodes into chaos, and James' true character reveals itself in a way that will change each man forever.
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Set in Iraq, the three men of Bravo Company's EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team have a healthy respect for roadside bombs. But despite taking all precautions, disaster strikes, leaving the team down a man. The replacement, Staff Sergeant James, is a self-confident veteran of Afghanistan whose first act is to remove the protective barrier over the windows of his barracks. He declares that he likes the sunlight and that the plywood won't protect him from an impact on the ceiling, anyway. It's the first hint that his world view might be a little different from that of the other members of the EOD. The first mission leaves no doubt of that. Upon arrival at the scene of the improvised explosive device (IED), SSgt. James refuses to use the remotely controlled robot, opting instead to wear "the suit" and search for the bomb himself. Since the bomb could be detonated at anytime from any of the buildings lining the street, SSgt. James' choice to go on foot seems insane, especially to his own men. Everyone, including the audience, is left wondering what would make a man take such unnecessary risks, but SSgt. James does so time and again. It is absolutely no surprise when, at the close of the movie, we see him returning to Iraq for another 365-day tour of duty. The simple fact is that he loves his work.
I couldn't write this review for several days after seeing THE HURT LOCKER. I had to let it simmer on my subconscious for a while. The filmmakers wisely chose to stay away from any political statements and any kind of subjective commentary by the characters. All of the characters are 100% believable (to a civilian, at any rate), and they all seem 100% sane within the context of their own actions. This is to say that while I would not don the suit and march up to an IED, I do not see SSgt. James' willingness, nay eagerness, to do so any more insane than a racing driver who loves to roar around the track at more than 200mph. This man loved his work. It focused him and made him feel alive. And he was very good at it.
The movie also reminded me of classics such as The Best Years of Our Lives, the William Wyler movie that depicted the difficulties of returning WWII veterans. While THE HURT LOCKER doesn't dwell on this aspect, it shows it starkly in about 3 minutes worth of scenes. The most jarring is a pair of scenes which start with a horrible incident in Iraq and switch almost immediately to SSgt. James back home in a grocery store aisle trying to decide which of 500 boxes of cereal to buy. I watched that thinking, "Free Willy!"
Also of note is the lack of blood and guts in the movie. They didn't need it to tell the story. There was some crude language, but, and I am not exaggerating, there was more of that in Trading Places, which I watched again recently. The acting was all top-notch and believable, made doubly so by some A-List cameos who get killed after 5 minutes on screen. I sat there thinking, "But I liked him. I wanted to see more of him. He can't be dead." As I pondered this later, I realized that perhaps that was the intended effect. Perhaps, and if so, then it was genius - this was a way to make the movie more personal.
I also think it's worth spelling out that THE HURT LOCKER is not so much a war movie as it is a movie set in a war. The characters could have been firefighters or cops or any number of high-danger professionals, and the story would still have worked. Even so, I wouldn't change a thing. THE HURT LOCKER works just fine as it is.
So, is "the Hurt Locker" an anti-military film? Hmm. It didn't strike me that way. Is it an anti-war film? Well, it doesn't glorify war, that's obvious, but it doesn't precisely get tough and analytical about the futility of war either. We all know , whether first hand or not, that war is dangerous to living things, soldiers or kids or old ladies at market. The Hurt Locker DOES depict the absolute futility of America's military occupation of Iraq, but that analysis seems almost tangential to the core of the film, which is the portrayal of Sgt. James, the genuine "wild man" who defuses bombs with his bare hands and whose maverick heroism gets several of his comrades gravely wounded, probably unnecessarily. Are we supposed to admire the maverick, or at least to empathize with him? That has to be what the film is asking of us. But the man is an ACTOR, friends! He's good-looking, witty, and he gets soft-hearted about an Iraqi boy with a big smile. The real Sgt James (who wouldn't be allowed such maverick-space in the real army) would not be so appealing. He's a pathological dude, amigos! He's a runaway train you wouldn't want on your tracks. I'm not sure you'd want him coming home to your community, either, even with combat ribbons. The real Sgt Jameses, and there are a few, bring home more trouble than the whole army protected you from. The psych clinics and emergency rooms of America are familiar with Sgt James and his battered wife.
Apparently lots of people were impressed with Jeremy Renner's performance as Sgt James. Me, I thought it was shallow. Anthony Mackie, as the second man on the bomb squad, delivered a more convincing characterization. Can a film this bloody and ugly be bland? It was for me. I sat through it without any emotional or intellectual engagement whatsoever.