Given the public’s reluctance to confront present-day reality, the string of unsuccessful movies—and TV series—on the Iraq War will probably continue with “The Hurt Locker.” That’s a pity, since while it doesn’t match the classic films about previous conflicts, it reinforces Kathryn Bigelow’s proficiency as an action director and offers a striking, if incomplete, portrait of a man enamoured of the rush posed by physical danger. Less impressive as a whole than it is in its parts, it’s still a provocative, well-crafted picture set in the still-ongoing occupation.
Bigelow and writer Mark Boal concentrate on a three-man Baghdad-based unit that specializes in defusing roadside bombs. When the squad leader Sgt. Thompson (Gus Pearce) is killed in an operation, the two remaining members, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), find themselves, only 38 days from rotation, saddled with a new one, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner). James quickly proves a cowboy—or as a superior (David Morse) says shortly after one of his more outrageous exploits, a wild man—with a reckless streak that both Thompson and Eldridge consider a threat to their own safety.
The film is basically a character study of James, who might be called, in the phrase John Hersey used as the title of one of his novels, a war lover—or, more precisely, a man who finds fulfillment only when placing himself at risk in combat, a warrior in the fullest etymological sense. Much of the film is taken up by long, detailed sequences of him defusing explosives hidden underground or in car trunks, heedless of the danger to himself (or his men, assigned to protect him against snipers) as he goes about the job. In one respect his single-mindedness is appalling, since we see him ignoring his wife and child at home to get the adrenaline rush he lusts after, even in the drunken after-hours roughhousing he engages in with Sanborn and Eldridge. In another, though, he’s expert at his job and really devoted to it, and proves the most stable, efficient person around when his unit comes under attack, along with a quartet of Brits (led by Ralph Fiennes, in what amounts to a cameo), in the desert.
The narrative shifts in the latter stages, though, when James is affected by the apparent murder of a young soccer-playing Iraqi kid, “Beckham” (Christopher Sayegh) whom he’s befriended. His fury leads him to a perilous nighttime trip outside the camp to seek out the killers, and then to lead the squad, without any support, on another raid in the city that nearly ends in disaster.
The problem with this last act material is that it never manages to bring the character’s psyche into clear focus: is he identifying the Iraqi boy—whom he apparently mistakes for another—with his own son, for instance? Or is he confusedly using his inarticulate anger as a justification for blood-lust? Perhaps that’s inevitable, and the point is that the motivation behind the kind of extreme machismo James represents is mysterious and unreachable. But such a realization doesn’t make “The Hurt Locker” any more dramatically satisfying in the end.
Still, it’s impossible not to appreciate the vividness and commitment of Renner’s performance, and while Mackie and Geraghty don’t have the opportunities he does to shine, both are up to what’s asked of them. Fiennes contributes a memorable turn, as does Morse in his single scene as a commander even more over-the-top than James.
Overseeing things, Bigelow, working closely with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd on location in Jordan and then with editors Bob Murawski and Chris Innis, creates a grittily realistic picture of the Baghdad battle zone, and builds individual sequences of considerable tension and suspense. Her aptitude for carefully calibrated action scenes is certainly on display, and unlike many directors she knows the value of avoiding the simple-mindedly raucous, using deliberation and atmosphere to screw up the suspense while judging the precise moment to unleash a shockingly abrupt bit of violence. And, of course, unlike most of the filmmakers working in the action genre, she uses her formidable talent on material with a serious intent, rather than the mindless adolescent mayhem so prevalent on the screen nowadays. This film isn’t cheap, meretricious exploitation.
“The Hurt Locker” is good enough that one wishes it were better. As it is, however, it certainly represents one of the best films yet made about the Iraq War. We still have to wait, though, for an unequivocal masterpiece on the conflict.