Dir. Kathryn Bigelow. US, 2008, 124 mins.
The Hurt Locker probably isn’t the ‘great’ Iraq film which will finally move audiences into theatres but it does play out like fragments of one. Kathryn Bigelow holds pieces of the jigsaw in this impressionistic, tense war drama shot at street level, but commercially The Hurt Locker is facing down the public’s well-documented indifference to Iraq fare without the armour of star wattage (Fiennes, Morse and Pearce all have brief cameos).
In reality, the lack of known faces works in The Hurt Locker’s favour, but whether audiences can be persuaded to take the risk is another matter and the all-male cast and testosterone-fuelled subject matter restricts the demographic.
In telling the story of a three-man bomb disposal unit working the streets of Baghdad and the addictive risks their work entails, this is closer in spirit to Fight Club than other recent Iraq-set fare, although Hurt Locker is instantly visually reminiscent of everything from Jarhead to The Kingdom and is evidently a war film.
Bigelow crafts here a barrage of individual set pieces of great, often heart-stopping tension, but they don’t quite add up as a whole and, towards the end, almost strain against the central impetuous of the film.
She captures very well, though, the feel at street level for these comrades-in-arms (Jordan subbed for Iraq) and it is possible this could play well to veterans and their families, kick-starting word-of-mouth.
Based on the reminiscences of Boal, a former correspondent assigned to one of Iraq’s special bomb units, The Hurt Locker starts by illustrating the correct procedure for Bravo Company to dismantle a street bomb - by sending in a robot down the rubbish-filled streets to investigate and then, if necessary, the unit’s sergeant (Guy Pearce) in an astronaut-style suit and a set of pliers.
With 38 days remaining on their tour, Bravo’s new adrenalin-junkie boss James (Renner; a ‘redneck piece of trailer trash’ according to his second-in-command) recklessly dispenses with all the formalities and immediately throws the unit’s chances of survival into extreme jeopardy. Sanborn (Mackie) and Eldridge (Geraghty) must now find a way to deal with their leader’s seeming indifference to death if they are themselves to survive.
Their reactions vary wildly over the course of the film, and give Hurt Locker an effective emotional arc. James’s character is more challenging for audiences, however. The film’s opening frame tells us how the rush of battle can be a powerful and lethal addiction and he evidently personifies the warning, but his journey feels almost pre-destined and uneasy interludes with a young Iraqi boy do little to open him up.
Moving off the Baghdad streets, a desert interlude with a bulked-up Ralph Fiennes’ band of British mercenaries half-way in is extremely effective but, as often seems to happen in The Hurt Locker, once it concludes the film flattens out and has to build up momentum again.
Technically, this is all you can ask from a war film, and Barry Ackroyd shoots low and intensely. A big relief is the lack of a powering, throbbing sound-track; Bigelow allows her characters make their own case without the score pumping it out for them.
Production company/int’l sales