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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) - Kathryn Bigelow

The Iraq war is a sensitive subject in... well, every medium. It’s a shady conflict with no clear and definable enemy and despite it being in the news nearly every day, it’s a subject filmmakers are hesitant to touch. The majority of films that deal with the war concentrate on the effects of the conflict on the soldiers or the families and friends of soldiers once they have returned from the conflict. Few films actually deal with the war on a day to day basis. But now we have The Hurt Locker, a film that deals with a bomb disposal unit, stationed in Iraq in 2004. Does it shed any new light on the war?

SSgt. William James newly appointed to an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit in Iraq. He’s seen his fair share of duty in Afghanistan and has disposed of countless explosives. Iraq is littered with Improvised Explosive Devices. James is teamed up with Sgt. JT Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge, soldiers just counting down the days until they go home. They hate Iraq and fear for their own safety. But James is reckless, and doesn’t care for his own safety, nor that of his fellow soldiers. And his recklessness puts him at odds with Sanborn and Eldridge.

Well, The Hurt Locker has arrived on a veritable tidal wave of positive reviews and unrelenting praise. And as I walked out of the cinema I couldn’t help but ask... why? Before the film began, I was sure I was walking into something that would... blow me out of my seat. Heh. But I was very underwhelmed. The first hour of the film had me gazing through the screen as the film failed to grab me by the balls and force my attention on the screen. It seems to follow the consensus that films that deal with the Iraq war are just not that very good.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some great moments in the film. A lot has been made of the tension that runs throughout the film. And there are some extremely tense moments in the film. But overall, I felt the film just fell a little flat in places and didn’t really hold my attention for long enough. And at a running time of 131 minutes, that is a problem. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t present the three central characters with an enemy they have to hunt for. This would have been cliché. Instead, their enemy is boredom and the situation they’re in. There are themes of heroism, fear of death and brotherhood in the film, but these aren’t touched upon nearly as much as they should have been. Maybe the canvas is too big, or maybe the writing wasn’t strong enough, but I felt there should have been more.

The performances, on the other hand, are excellent. The three central actors, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty all play their roles with conviction. None of the characters are too similar, and they all have their demons to battle with. Despite glossing over a lot of these, other than for Renner’s James, the actors do their best with what they have and are convincing. There are cameos from heavyweights like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse, but these cameos are fleeting and don’t give the actors much to work with.

Kathryn Bigelow is most famous for Point Break, a film that is basically testosterone on screen. And there’s no shortage of it in The Hurt Locker. But in no way is The Hurt Locker a comparable film to Point Break. It is far more serious. As it should be. Bigelow’s direction is sketchy. At moments, she builds the tension brilliantly. And she does get great performances from her actors. But her cinematic flourishes aren’t anything incredibly innovative. And the very last shot of the film is shockingly misjudged and out of place within the context of the rest of the film.

Overall, The Hurt Locker isn’t a bad film. It’s just a little better than average. It’s saved by it’s actors. And yet the first great Iraq war film hasn’t been made. It certainly isn’t this film. A far better document of the war is the television mini-series, Generation Kill. Obviously, being a mini-series, it has a greater canvas to work on. But many great individual films have been made about World War 2, and wars don’t get bigger nor more complex than that. Ignore the hype and maybe you won’t be disappointed like I was. It’s good, but not great. I just hoped for more from The Hurt Locker.


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