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Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

MOVIE REVIEW
The Hurt Locker (2008)

11SG-03
Summit Entertainment

"The Hurt Locker" lays its cards on the table with the opening words: "War is a drug." Anyone at odds with that thought will have a tough time at Kathryn Bigelow's film, which gives the notion a good chewing over. Action movies can be a drug too, and luckily for addicts of the hard stuff, Ms. Bigelow finds in the dust of Baghdad a further evolution of her interest in blue-collar obsessives and the macho mindset, and the results are pretty combustible.

Straight from the off, the film backgrounds all issues of politics, strategy and surges, and focuses on the inherently dramatic daily grind of a Baghdad bomb disposal squad, men aware that every discarded shopping bag could take their heads off. Except that one of this particular team may be mentally unstable: two subordinates, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) start to wonder if their new team leader Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) might be cracking under the strain. Surviving the 30 odd days until the end of their rotation becomes their main concern.

The impact of bolting Ms. Bigelow's full-on kinetic style onto a story that's already half ticking-clock countdown thriller and half fog-of-war psycho-drama is drastic, not least since she's always shown a knack for foregrounding the human element. "The Hurt Locker" is propulsive, visceral and surprising, but still finds room to flesh out Messrs. Mackie and Garaghty's characters. A trio of higher-profile actors pass through in cameos - among them Ralph Fiennes, a sweet echo of Ms. Bigelow's neglected masterpiece "Strange Days" - but the director knows there's more mileage in the strained trust between less familiar performers than anything a visiting mega-star could provide. Plus you can't rely on the protagonists keeping a full set of limbs.

The film hinges on Sgt. James, a conflicted ball of inner tension whose motives are hard to get a grip on, and who therefore seems at least to this observer to be among the most realistically ambiguous soldiers recently on film. Setting James up as a reckless maverick, which would have occupied a lesser film for many happy hours, is dispensed with by Ms. Bigelow in about 15 minutes, after which the character's motivations become steadily more interesting and slippery. Casting Mr. Renner was especially smart, given that the actor's habitual sleaze factor in films like "North Country" makes him pretty opaque already.

As a result, there's the risk that audiences won't engage, either with James or the messy tensions of the war. Certainly "The Hurt Locker" does not look much like a commercial proposition: There are few answers here, the characters are not overtly sympathetic, and the film exits on the only note it could, a thoroughly downbeat one. The real difficulty in selling it though might be that despite the setting, it's a fantastic old-school men-in-battle movie that, in some eyes, might cheapen the Iraq experience by generalizing it.

But in exchange you get Ms. Bigelow's taste for uncynical action sequences and unrivaled command of the screen. The best set piece of all in "The Hurt Locker" isn't a bomb disposal, but a protracted sniper duel in the middle of nowhere tense enough to make you realize that Iraq War films have just morphed into no-adjective-needed war films before your eyes. And also that your fingernails are stuck in the armrest.

THE HURT LOCKER

Opens on June 26 in Manhattan.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal; director of photography, Barry Ackroyd; edited by Bob Murawski and Chris Innis; music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders; production designer, Karl Juliusson; produced by Ms. Bigelow, Mr. Boal, Nicolas Chartier and Greg Shapiro; released by Summit Entertainment. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jeremy Renner (Staff Sgt. William James), Anthony Mackie (Sgt. J. T. Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Specialist Owen Eldridge), Ralph Fiennes (Contractor Team Leader), David Morse (Colonel Reed) and Guy Pearce (Sgt. Matt Thompson).

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