'Hurt Locker': An Explosive Look At The Iraq War

Jeremy Renner in 'The Hurt Locker' i i

hide captionStaff Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is a bomb-squad hotshot whose cowboy antics make him the first modern war-movie hero who might have been played by John Wayne.

Summit Entertainment
Jeremy Renner in 'The Hurt Locker'

Staff Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is a bomb-squad hotshot whose cowboy antics make him the first modern war-movie hero who might have been played by John Wayne.

Summit Entertainment

The Hurt Locker

  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Genre: Action, Drama
  • Running Time: 131 minutes

Rated R: War Violence and Language

With: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes

(Recommended)

Brian Geraghty and Guy Pearce in 'The Hurt Locker' i i

hide captionSgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce, right) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are veterans of the unit James joins — and they're none too certain about his wild-man ways.

Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment
Brian Geraghty and Guy Pearce in 'The Hurt Locker'

Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce, right) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are veterans of the unit James joins — and they're none too certain about his wild-man ways.

Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment

The 'Fresh Air' Interview

When it comes to getting an audience's attention, there's nothing quite like blowing up a major star within the first five minutes of a movie.

I'll let you discover his identity for yourself. Suffice it to say that the character seems to be taking plenty of precautions, first using a radio-controlled robot to explode a bomb half a block away — then, when the robot gets stuck, donning a bulky protective suit and helmet that make him look like a deep sea diver.

All, as it happens, for naught.

Now, this is a guy who's cautious — so it spooks the squad when his replacement arrives and appears far more cavalier. (And after that opening, it should spook audiences as well.)

Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) may actually be a careful — even a talented — technician, but he comes off as a showboating cowboy, as likely as not to shuck his protective gear when he approaches a bomb.

"If I'm gonna die," he tells the men as he strips off the deep-sea-diver outfit, "I'm gonna die comfortable."

The adrenaline rush of war has been largely missing from Hollywood's Iraq, but it's certainly front and center in The Hurt Locker, the first war movie in a while that feels as if it could have starred John Wayne.

Journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah) was embedded with a bomb squad while covering American troops in Iraq several years ago, an experience that led him to write a film script that follows a bomb squad at closer range than some moviegoers will find entirely comfortable.

The film details the unnervingly tense business of defusing (or sometimes safely detonating) roadside munitions, reserving moments here and there for the comparative downtime of deadly firefights and guarded, fretful camaraderie.

That said, the adrenaline quotient is supplied only partly by the script. Director Kathryn Bigelow ratchets up tension with scene after wrenching scene — soaring above the action when Renner tugs at a loose wire that leads to a spidery web of bombs hidden under a road, pulling in desperately close to a terrified Iraqi who's been locked and locked and locked again into a bomb harness.

That a woman has finally entered the all-male world of war movies — as director, yet — feels somehow right at this moment. American servicewomen, after all, are finding themselves in combat situations in this war without a front line, in ways they never did in previous wars.

If the film were just a series of explosions, artfully shot, Bigelow might lay claim to making a ferociously effective war flick, but she and Boal are aiming a little higher: They want to get inside the heads of the men in the squad. That's a trickier proposition, and when the film gets misty about subsidiary characters, it also gets a bit lost.

More often, though, it's psychologically astute, especially when demonstrating how friction between the new guy and the squad smoothes a bit when they discover he's got a sentimental side — a keepsake box under his bed filled with bomb parts that almost killed him. Also a wedding ring.

"Like I said," he smiles, "things that almost killed me."

There are things The Hurt Locker does not do. The Iraqis, mostly, are just scowling faces, and the reasons for the American presence in their country are left to other movies. The focus here is on that single bomb squad.

And if the quote that first lights up the screen — "war is a drug" — has been amply illustrated by film's end, what Bigelow makes even more explosively clear is that for these men, war is also, centrally, a job.

A job they have to be really good at, or they won't do it for long. (Recommended)

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