Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Hurt Locker [Review]

If the phrase “Groundhog Day” scares you in the slightest, then at around the one hour mark in this film you may be visited by a sudden urge to stick your fingers in your ears, shut your eyes and begin humming away as loudly as possible.

For while The Hurt Locker accomplishes many things, it does not manage to avoid that which was this reviewer’s cause of concern from the beginning. The setup is worryingly simple: a three-man bomb defusal squad, consisting of Will James, Sanborn and newbie Elridge, go about their duty in Iraq, locating and defusing or otherwise removing hostile explosives.

It seems then, that to put it simply, The Hurt Locker is more a collection of vignettes than a continuous story; there is an auspicious lack of an overarching narrative. While this may simply be down to the content – the film is, after all, following a unit in their everyday duty and therefore it can be expected that the same style of scene may be witnessed more than once – it nevertheless makes for a jarring experience, with no real flow between each event. Luckily, all is not lost. The story finally shifts when James discovers a body of an ally and puts himself to the task of delivering justice upon the attackers. This is when you take your fingers out of your ears.

Because, while the first half of the film may feel as if it is slightly tedious and repetitive, it is perfectly executed to simply become a front for what the film is truly about: the relationship between these three men. If you take the time to see the film for what it is – an emotional and captivating story of three brothers in arms – rather than any preconceptions you may have of it being ‘just another war film’, then you may be pleasantly surprised. The Hurt Locker is far more Saving Private Ryan than Bridge on the River Kwai; a gritty, emotional gut punch. It is not just a war film. It is war poetry.

As could be expected with the subject matter, the feeling experienced most during viewing is that of utmost tension. In such a war, filth and poverty ridden city as Baghdad, anything could happen – and that it does. Heart-stopping roadside shootouts and risky defusal operations are matched perfectly with the camerawork, which director Kathryn Bigelow must be praised for; shaky-cam Cloverfield style shots intersect with focuses on insurgents, creating a frenzied atmosphere that only increases the tension further. However, intense sequences are often broken up by simple distractions; tumbleweed rolling past or a cat digging through rubbish.

This sudden and often brief shift in shot type marries perfectly with the usual rapid movements and zoom techniques to great effect, delivering edge-of-the-seat cinematics. The ‘distraction’ sequences also successfully manage to give the impression that the inhabitants of Baghdad are accustomed to this way of life - they continue to go about their lives every day with the risk of potential slaughter. Through this the film sends home an important message to the viewer, especially that of the importance and bravery of the troops to put their lives on the line to save these people, who, unlike us here in Britain, face terrorism as a constant threat, and have to live every day with the paranoia of it being their last.

The relatively lesser-known cast of The Hurt Locker put in an exceptional performance; protagonist Will James (Jeremy Renner, of 28 Weeks Later and The Assassination of Jesse James Ford) is suitably cocky, trying to prove himself, and his emotions are perfectly believable – the audience can easily empathise with his feelings when a young boy he knows is killed by insurgents. And on that note, we come to the actual plot of the film; the events setup by the first half to introduce our characters and allow them some admittedly rather impressive development.

Rather than the usual ‘unit go out, unit defuse bomb, unit argue a little, unit come home’ structure we’ve become so accustomed to by this point, we’re treated to something slightly (whisper it) different. James’ attempts to avenge the death of a small boy he had befriended ultimately lead to an albeit not-very-surprising climax to the film. This sudden shake-up throws off the possibly now sleeping viewer, giving a sudden wake-up call that events out of the norm do occasionally happen now and then.

But the plot is not the focus here. If you can overcome the lack of story in the first half of the film and concentrate on the more emotional and deeper aspects of The Hurt Locker, and look at it as not simply another war film, but as war poetry, you may be amiably taken aback by what you find in this valiant story of three brave war heroes serving in Iraq.

See also: Saving Private Ryan (1998), Black Hawk Down (2001)

Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Voltage Pictures, 131 mins, 28/08/09

Synopsis: An exposé on the day-to-day lives of an elite army bomb squad, forced into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse - in a land where every object and every person is a potential threat...


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