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Entries in Hurt Locker/The [2009] (1)

Monday
Jan182010

The Hurt Locker (2009)

A Dull Roar

Watching The Hurt Locker was, for me, a roller coaster of an experience—but not in the way I thought it would be. Instead of being mesmerized by this highly acclaimed film, I was put through the emotional wringer of loving large stretches of it and hating the nearly half-dozen fatal story mistakes, a series of innocuous splinters that eventually became a giant stake through the heart. By the end of The Hurt Locker, I’d found a new, lowered threshold for the amount of awkwardness that I will let slide before I officially dislike a movie that I’d initially enjoyed.

The movie centers on a three-man American bomb-disposal unit patrolling Baghdad in 2004. In the opening scene, the head of the unit is blown up by a roadside bomb; he is quickly replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hotshot with a record of disarming more than 870 bombs. James goes out of his way to frustrate the other members of his unit by not responding to them during tense situations and frequently darting off on his own without notice. Much of the first two-thirds of The Hurt Locker centers on the dynamic between James and his men as they head from one informant’s tip to another, deactivating explosives and avoiding gunfire.

These scenes are very effective and quite stylish. Director Katherine Bigelow, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski team up to create some wonderfully tense moments. A typical call for the unit involves James walking slowly towards a pile of rubble while the other two cover him, watching rooftops and ridges for any signs of insurgents or detonators; through whirling shaky-cam and intense close-ups of the soldiers, the gathering crowds and, inevitably, the bomb wires, we feel the paranoia and panic of a desperate situation—one that plays out day after day for these men.

Sadly, it isn’t enough for The Hurt Locker to rely on this visceral drama. Someone, be it the studio head, the director, or screenwriter Mark Boal, felt that the movie needed a plot; this in itself is not a bad thing, unless that plot is less interesting than simply watching bombs get defused—and unless the way in which the plot unfolds is a sloppy, clichéd mess. Boal has a certain amount of credibility on the film’s subject, having been an embedded journalist in the Iraq war. But his screenplay is just a grim ‘n gritty version of Top Gun loaded down with some half-baked ideas about war being a drug.

Let’s back up a second and look at the three specific problems I have with The Hurt Locker. These are the main issues that tried my patience and ultimately soured me on the film. If you noticed them, they may not have had the same effect on your perception of the overall movie, but for me they represent an unforgivable undermining of the hard work that went into the rest of the project.

1. The Cast: The three leads in this picture are relative unknowns, and they’re surrounded by famous supporting actors. I found this to be distracting and weird. Why have Ralph Fiennes show up in a picture if he’s going to be killed literally five minutes after he’s introduced? Why give a bit part (and that’s being generous) to Evangeline Lilly if she’s going to spend half her performance in silhouette and the other half chopping carrots (with a close-up on the carrots)? When David Morse shows up early on as another unit leader who kills a captured bomber, I figured, “Oh, cool, this guy’s going to be an interesting villain.” But, no, he enters and leaves the picture as if he’d just shown up to earn his SAG card.

The only cameo that worked was Guy Pearce’s as SSgt. James’ predecessor. If Psycho, Scream, and Executive Decision taught us anything, it’s that you can have a famous person open a picture and then get killed off right away—allowing the cast of unknowns to shine. But having random stars show up and not be involved in the main story just creates confusion and frustration—especially when one of your three leads (Brian Geraghty, as the lowest-ranking member of the bomb unit) isn’t a particularly interesting actor.

2. The “Plot”: The Hurt Locker suffers from a similar problem as District 9. It wears the skin of credibility of a documentary, but also wants to inject a story into “real-life” situations. Like I said before, following a Baghdad bomb squad is exciting enough. We don’t need a lame sub-plot about James avenging the death of a local kid, especially when that sub-plot becomes a parody of 24; James sneaks off base in a hoodie and cammo-pants, breaks into an apartment waiving his gun around, and is finally kicked out by a woman brandishing a hot tea set. What’s worse, we get a tense scene of James making his way through a shady neighborhood where people begin to notice that he’s an American. But instead of this leading to anything, the scene just cuts to James calmly walking onto the base some time later.

There’s also an earlier vignette in which James’s two subordinates contemplate killing him with a detonator while he’s out retrieving his gloves from a blast test site. This was two weeks after James’ arrival in the unit, and while I understand how annoying it might be to have to put up with a cowboy commander who’s like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Maverick from Top Gun, I would think the first two or ten steps in dealing with the problem might involve reporting his behavior to high command (that’s another nagging issue with this movie; the bomb unit is shown as being completely autonomous; there are absolutely no consequences for any of the three lead characters when they leave the green zone to go on their own search-and-destroy mission in a neighborhood—during which one of them is kidnapped and shot in the leg—or allow one of the base psychiatrists to be blown up during a ridealong).

3. The “Message”: The thrust of The Hurt Locker’s story is that, to some soldiers, war is a drug they just can’t kick. That’s a fascinating idea and a great premise for a movie; but this is not that movie. The theme isn’t clearly stated with an effective through-line; rather it just kind of pops up from time to time, and is occasionally left to interpretation (as evidenced by James’s obsession with finding the Iraqi kid’s killers—does he really care, or is he just hoping to find more danger? I’m inclined toward the latter theory, only because he doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about his own infant son back home—who he addresses in one of the most unintentionally funny moments I’ve seen in quite awhile). The message might have worked had James not operated in such a vaccuum. By the end of the film, his nutty behavior has damaged his teammates—just like in any other drug movie—but we still don’t have a handle on what turned James on to war or why he’s obsessed with danger—which is the hallmark of any good drug movie.

Much like the old joke about Hollywood pitch meetings (“It’s like Die Hard...on a boat!”), I found The Hurt Locker to be nothing more than a very stylized gimmick picture, with the War on Terror standing in for crack or heroin. I think the only way this movie could have worked would have been if Bigelow and company had A) stuck with a straightforward faux-documentary that revealed its characters’ motivations through their reactions to their job or B) written a complete script—that’s beginning, middle and end, kids—with fully formed ideas, plot points that connected with one another, and characters who transcended their genre stereotypes.

There’s a lot that works in The Hurt Locker, but not enough to recommend.