To kick off this new segment, I figured what better movie to review than the one voted the top movie of the year by those fine folks at the Academy (pff, right), Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. I recently Netflix'd the dvd (God I love Netflix) and it made for a pretty damn entertaining watch. By the way, before we get started with the actual review, let me give you fair warning that I'm still new to the idea of writing about something while not giving too much away, so here's your blanket spoiler alert to cover pretty much the whole review. I'll do my best to mark the point of a spoiler, but honestly, if I ruin anything for you I'm not going to lose a whole lot of sleep about it.
The movie's opening sequence introduces us to an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq on the scene of a potential roadside bomb. Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) provide support for team leader Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce...who knew he was in this?). As they set about their work, two things are established. First, Kathryn Bigelow is a master at creating suspense. Second, if you are a famous British actor in this film **Spoiler Alert** you're going to die very quickly **End Spoiler**
Each event in the opening sequence tells us that Sergeant Thompson is pretty much screwed. The wheel of the team's remote-controlled wagon falls off, which means he'll have to go and personally rig the explosives to blow safely. Sergeant Sanborn makes a note of when he is within the kill zone of the bomb so we know that we're even closer to a big kaboom. On top of all of this we have several people intently observing the scene, and each of them seems to be doing his own interpretation of the stock villain in a top hat evilly twirling his mustache, so who knows which one is the real bad guy. Now, Bigelow could have just gone for the easy shock, throwing in an explosion out of no where and giving the audience a sudden jolt and a need for a change of underwear. But by tipping the audience off little by little as the scene progresses, Bigelow can toy with us, making us go nuts waiting for that inevitable explosion.
Later in the movie, we get another dose of equal parts suspense/famous English actors taking a dirt nap when the team meets a group of British mercenaries led by Lord Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes (no one really cares what his character's name is in the movie do they?). When a sniper begins picking off members of the mercenary squad, the shots come from so far away that the bullets hit their targets before we even hear them. So while Voldemort starts to take aim to return fire, we know it's only a matter of time before he eats a shit sandwich, but not knowing exactly when is a racks your nerves in the best possible way.
The other great thing that this movie has going for it is some great casting choices. Besides the Brits who serve as the Iraq war equivalent of "red shirt" ensigns from Star Trek, we get a main cast that most people probably never heard of before this movie, but probably will quite a bit in the future. Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James, replacement for the very dead Sergeant Thompson. As the typical plays-by-his-own rules-and-apparently-has-a-deathwish Sergeant James, Renner essentially channels Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs. He casually puts himself and others in harms way while shooting a few good one-liners and slowly fraying around the edges, which really isn't all that original. But hey, it works. Renner is very likeable and adds just enough depth to the character that he doesn't quite fall into cliche. Two relative unknowns in Mackie and Gergarghty provide support for Renner, and they were both very serviceable acting as the two straight men. The scene where the three soldiers get drunk after a day on the job gets a bit more wild and violent than your average happy hour gathering, but as someone who has friends who've served in the military I can attest that the representation of such steam-venting is pretty realistic.
Which brings me to a point of debate over The Hurt Locker: does the movie accurately portray the life of an EOD squad in Iraq? I listened to a story on the radio recently that featured actual bomb disposal soldiers complain that James' cavalier attitude towards bomb disposal is not indicative of a real soldier's concern for safety and protocol, and that it's aggravating to watch a character portrayed that way. My take on this point is fairly simple: I really don't give a shit how accurate the movie is or isn't. I've never been to Iraq and I've never even seen a bomb up close, much less disarmed one, so accuracy really isn't on my radar for a movie like this. Plus, even if I normally would be inclined to pick up inaccuracies, I'm not going to walk into a movie from the director of Point Break and expect to gain encyclopedic knowledge of the military culture.
Pictured above: a typical day for an FBI agent
I would say my only real complaint with The Hurt Locker is that it never really goes anywhere. I realize that's kind of the point in that we aren't meant to take away any kind of commentary on the war in Iraq, but rather just view the day-to-day lives of the soldiers who serve there. But when I was done watching the movie, I found it left me wanting. To be honest I'm not even quite sure what it is that left me unsatisfied. Maybe I had my expectations set too high since I saw it after it won the Oscar for best picture, which I'll admit is a pretty stupid reason to have really high hopes for a movie. I went into the movie expecting something that no one has ever done before with a movie about Iraq, and while it delivered in that aspect insofar as no movie about Iraq has taken the straight action movie approach, it's still something we've seen time and time again in other straight action movies. But again, that doesn't mean it was entertaining. Grade: B+.