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Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

Stand SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) on any grocery store cereal aisle and he’s utterly lost, overwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Put that same man in front of a bomb half-buried under sandy rubble on a Baghdad street and watch his eyes come alive. To call SSG James an “adrenaline junkie,” however, is to suggest he’s fix-focused and remorseless. Renner, coming out of nowhere with a fearless performance, gives this seemingly careless soldier complexity, including a desire to understand his fixation. “You know why I’m that way?” he asks Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). There’s no real answer for a question like this, James seems to understand, and even if there was, it wouldn’t do anything to kill the adrenaline buzz.

Too often in war films we don’t get characters as human and as layered as SSG William James; instead, we get caricatures — hunky heroes (here’s looking at you, Ben Affleck/Capt. Rafe McCawley) or mouthy wild cards like Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. With “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow seems intent on changing that without skimping on the tension, the action or the explosions. Using hand-held cameras, she creates a war film that feels not shaky or low-budget but surprisingly intimate. What this technique can do is perfectly amazing: every grimace, every bullet wound, every bead of sweat gets up-close-and-personal treatment. These cameras transplant viewers to the streets of Baghdad, staring down the barrel of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) wired with enough firepower to KO a city block and everyone in it. Bigelow’s reliance on this technique infuses every frame of the film with nail-biting intensity. When an IED blows, we feel the vibrations and taste the sand. This is war at the hot, dirty ground level.

Yet as impressive as Bigelow’s vision is, it’s scriptwriter Mark Boal’s characters that make “The Hurt Locker” one of the most personal and psychologically intriguing war films ever made. Renner’s SSG James is a commanding figure, but so are his fellow soldiers. James steps in as team leader of the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, and the company members — Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, nicely capturing the anguish of a man not prepared for what he’s seeing), still smarting from witnessing the original team lead’s death — immediately distrust James. He’s reckless to a fault, pulling off his headset to dismantle an IED hidden in an abandoned car. When a cabbie is mistaken as an insurgent and gets roughed up, James is dependably cavalier: “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now.” He doesn’t rely on his team members for intel and charges head-first into unknown situations. Both Sanborn and Eldridge sense a recklessness in their superior that frightens them, and they know James isn’t in this for patriotic reasons. Mackie, a remarkably subtle actor, communicates his wariness and weariness through his eyes; in a later scene with Renner, he is more blunt about his feelings: “I’m not ready to die.”

Renner is alternately fierce and quietly devastating, but never does he shy away from showing us a man acutely aware he has a problem but likes the charge too much to stop. Renner also finds an undercurrent of pride in SSG James, a thoroughly ordinary father/husband (to Evangeline Lily, whose few scenes are poignant) in civilian life but an extraordinary soldier.

At the film’s beginning, Bigelow provides what seems like an ominous warning: “War is a drug.” But by the end of “The Hurt Locker,” New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ quote seems less like an admonition and more like a thought-provoking, very uncomfortable question. In war, Bigelow seems to prompt us, who do we really want on the battlefield — the soldier longing for home whose head isn’t quite in the game, or the reckless fighter who just can’t get enough, the one dashing right into the smoke wearing the grin of a junkie with an empty needle in his vein? Only the boldest director would dare shine a light into that dark corner of the human mind, and only a movie as good as “The Hurt Locker” would make us consider the repercussions of our honest answer.

Grade: A