The Hurt Locker (2008)

The Hurt Locker tells its story by breaking it up into different episodes. Each one is titled by telling us how many days are left in this groups tour in Iraq. This is a war film about the adventures of three men during the Iraq war. It doesn’t have much in the way of an overarching story, except that its characters remain (mostly) consistent throughout. While some come and go, our three men generally are always present.

We begin with the death of man tasked with defusing a bomb. It’s a long scene that ends when his squadmates fail to shoot a civilian with a cell phone which ends up being the trigger. This man’s replacement ends up being Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), an overconfident young man with a wife and child back home. His group consists of Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldrick (Brian Geraghty). Most of the time we spend with them involves one mission or another, with downtime being skipped. They have forty days left until they can return home.

Any suspense generated is typically done in one of two forms. Either the group will be dealing with a bomb that could go off due to an error or because any random civilian could detonate it, or because snipers could be everywhere, and the group constantly has to be on guard for that. Road mines are also common, and the group’s Humvee could be blown to smithereens at any moment. A quote opens the film, and it tells us that war is a drug. In many ways, I can see that’s true. The Hurt Locker certainly presents itself to make sure that point gets across to the audience.

The episodic format that the narrative is told through actually works for something like this. When we just get done with one tense scene, going back to base and waiting a few days before the next one could harm the pacing. By simply skipping those parts and fast-forwarding to the next thrilling part of the solders’ lives, we are always involved. There are enough character moments thrown in, but this is mostly an action-thriller. It certainly does a good job at filling both genres’ expectations.

As the group goes on more missions together, tensions begin to rise. At one point, Sanborn and Eldrich contemplate killing James, making it look like an accident. It makes sense why they’d want him gone — he is, after all, a danger to their group thanks to being an overconfident man who works with bombs for a living — but James never finds out that they thought about it, which is surprising. There’s a scene in which all three characters get drunk together, which seemed like the perfect moment to increase the tension by having it slip from one of their mouths. No such luck, I’m afraid.

The tension of the group doesn’t actually last all that long, and it’s eventually forgotten that they even fought. Only through a very stupid decision does it get brought up again, and even then, it’s only for that one scene before it’s deemed “water under the bridge.” I get that the film wants the characters to come together and become friends, but doing it as early on as it happens here doesn’t help the already-disjointed narrative. It gives us one less thing to think about, and despite director Katherine Bigalow’s attempts, the characters (especially in the case of Sanborn and Eldrich) fade into the background.

Sergeant James is really the only character that gets enough development to make him relatable. He’s an adrenaline junkie, someone else says, and that’s a pretty apt description from where I’m sitting. But he’s also funny, a risk-taker, and generally a likable guy. He even becomes friends with one of the Iraqi children who tries to sell him bootleg DVDs. But once he starts working on the bombs, he becomes focused and we get to see a real craftsman at the top of his game. It’s enjoyable to watch him wherever he goes, and it makes sense for the film to focus on him.

Jeremy Renner’s performance is what really makes the Sergeant’s character work. It’s a very subdued job, although he’s pretty much the perfect actor for this type of role. He can be cocky, he can be confident, and he’s athletic enough to perform in the actions. But he’s also kind of an everyman. Mackie and Geraghtly are relegated to supporting detail, but despite that, they’re strong and make what little character they’re given work. Other supporting roles — in these cases, the characters usually appear once and then aren’t seen again — go to Guy Pearce, David Morse, Christian Camargo, Ralph Fiennes, and Evangeline Lilly.

If nothing else, The Hurt Locker feels very authentic. I don’t know if it actually is — I have a hard time believing some of the things these soldiers get away with could actually happen — but the way it looks and feels makes you feel like you’ve just experienced war. It’s a very gritty filming style, primarily consisting of handheld shots, but it works well in this case. The action scenes are all very intense, and you feel that, at any point, the lives of these people could be at an end.

The Hurt Locker is a very exciting movie about the Iraq war. It contains a solid lead performance from Jeremy Renner, has nerve-racking action scenes, and works well telling this one man’s story, even if that means the supporting cast is ultimately inconsequential. It feels real, it looks real, and it’s a fine journey to experience. I was never bored while watching it, and while it has a few flaws, they’re easy to look past both while watching and afterward. Definitely give this film a watch.

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