The Hurt Locker
A Film Review

South Africa By: Robert Lemmer on 13 May 2010
Category: Screen > Film > Reviews Comments View Comments

If you don't want to worry with complex plots and prefer your action taking place on Earth, go and see The Hurt Locker, a contemporary war film delivering good action with little need to engage the higher brain functions.

The Hurt LockerI was surprised Avatar faired so badly at the 82nd Academy Awards this year. Although I had not seen all 10 films nominated for Best Picture (compared to the traditional five), the certainty of James Cameron walking away with another boatload of Oscars was cemented in my mind. By no means was Avatar the best film of the year but it felt like another Titanic moment for Cameron. Obviously I was wrong but having seen The Hurt Locker, I cannot say the better film won.

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and winner of six Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, is a tense character study of three United States military soldiers as they serve out a tour of duty in Iraq. It is admirable for keeping the focus on the three main characters and not overtly attempting to moralise or justify the war they are fighting but it is still a very average film overall.

What makes the film so intense is its focus on the characters Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner, and Sergeant JT Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie, and to a lesser extent Specialist Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, and the reality of them as an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team operating in Iraq.

The Hurt Locker The film has an episodic structure, which is expected from a movie about soldiers at war. They are out on a mission, then we see them on base, then they are out on another mission, rinse and repeat until the end. I liked this because it reinforces and makes real for the audience the trudging, repetitive lives these soldiers must live. One day eventually just merges into the next and the specifics of each mission becomes unimportant. The film is easy to follow, however. The use of titles to announce how many days left until they can go home gives an obvious goal and end point for the film. This also helps to ratchet up the tension as the days grow shorter. Nothing is wasted on unnecessary explanations of why they are there or an overarching plot and a visible, typically Hollywood bad guy for them to beat. Sanborn and Eldridge just want to survive to go home. The job itself, the disarming of the bombs, becomes everything for James.

Renner's portrayal of James is perfect and exemplifies the highlighted section of the quote that opens the film: "war is a drug". James is addicted to the thrill of disarming bombs. At one point in the film he tells a senior officer he has disarmed over 800 bombs. The officer is suitably impressed, especially when you consider one mistake can end an EOD soldier's career, and life. He is reckless in his conduct and attitude to the situations he finds himself in but this does not change his determination and ability to deliver.

The Hurt Locker By contrast Sanborn is very cautious. He wants to do the job and get himself and his team home safely. There is no thrill in war for him. It is a duty he feels compelled to perform. He is very good at what he does and is capable of stepping up when it is required of him. He is not a coward but he does not have the reckless reliance on war to satisfy him as James does.

Eldridge's character development is the most Hollywood, or predictable, for me. He is the typical rookie who gets off on playing war video games and just cannot deliver in the real war situation. There is a constant reluctance to him that I found grating and annoying. I think his inclusion in the film was meant as a contrast to James and Sanborn, but he just felt unnecessary. Although the character does allow us to contemplate aspects of a soldier at war not evident in the other two leads, a third wheel is rarely welcome.

The Hurt Locker The three Oscars The Hurt Locker definitely earned were Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Video Editing. The soundscape is incredibly immersive and everything just feels that much more authentic and realistic for having rich and multilayered sounds complementing the images. Even when nothing is happening the environment is filled with varied noises and sounds, and the music feels like a natural extension of the environment. Sometimes the music in a film can draw you out of the cinematic experience and you start to focus more on how that specifically makes you feel than how it integrates with the film overall. The soundtrack in The Hurt Locker never overwhelms the reality of the film, and it manifests and fades away with you almost not even noticing, just lending an extra edge to the emotionality of the scenes it plays under. Only in the scenes in James' bunk room does the soundtrack really bash you in the face with grating heavy metal music, so even before he speaks or does anything we're already forming an opinion about him and connecting with his character based on his choice of music.

Unlike other films with action and guns, the shots are allowed to breathe in The Hurt Locker. This doesn't mean there are a limited number of shots for each scene with each one dragging on forever. On the contrary, the coverage in each scene is very comprehensive but you are given enough time to register what you are seeing instead of being bombarded by a brutal cascade of barely seen images where faster and faster cuts from one shot to the next has erroneously become synonymous with heightened tension. Editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski have realised what is shown in each shot can create just as much tension, and leave far fewer cinemagoers with upset stomachs and vertigo.

The Hurt Locker As a war film there is violence and explosions but it is never gratuitous and is always informed by character development when it relates to the main characters. There is one exception though. Read any review of the film and you will read critics praising the film for what it's not: a comment on the war at large and the political reasons for the deployment of soldiers to the Middle East and whether or not their continued deployment there is a good thing. On the whole the film forgoes overt politicising and focuses on telling the story of James and his EOD unit but the filmmakers reveal an obvious bias against US occupation when in the film a senior officer has a prisoner killed, when the prisoner is both unarmed and already wounded. This scene has nothing to do with the main characters and serves in no way to further our understanding of them.

The Hurt Locker is a very believable film but does not stand out for me above any of the other war films about contemporary conflicts I've watched in recent years, including Black Hawk Down, Jarhead, and The Kingdom. It did nothing new to make it anymore than an entertaining war film, which is enough to make it enjoyable but not enough to justify winning Best Picture and Best Director.

The Hurt Locker is currently showing on circuit in South Africa and is available on DVD in South Africa and other regions. The movie screening for review purposes was courtesy of Nu Metro. OpinionShare/Bookmark
Rating: 6/10
In One Word: Focused

Key Facts: The Hurt Locker
Year: 2008
Running Time: 131 minutes (approx)
Genre: Action, War
Format: Feature; widescreen 1:85; colour
Language: English, Arabic
Country: USA
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Jeremy Renner ... Sergeant First Class William James
Anthony Mackie ... Sergeant JT Sanborn
Brian Geraghty ... Specialist Owen Eldridge
Guy Pearce ... Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson
Ralph Fiennes ... Contractor Team Leader
David Morse ... Colonel Reed
Evangeline Lilly ... Connie James
Christian Camargo ... Colonel John Cambridge
Suhail Aldabbach ... Black Suit Man (as Suhail Al-Dabbach)
Christopher Sayegh ... Beckham
Nabil Koni ... Professor Nabil
Kathryn Bigelow ... producer
Mark Boal ... producer
Nicholas Chartier ... producer
Greg Shapiro... producer
Writer: Mark Boal
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Film Editing:
Casting: Mark Bennett
Production Design: Karl Júlíusson
Art Direction: David Bryan
Set Decoration: Amin Charif El Masri
Costume Design: George Little

On The Internet
Official Site: The Hurt Locker

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