An intense portrayal of elite soldiers who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: disarming bombs in the heat of combat. When a new sergeant, James (Jeremy Renner), takes over a highly trained bomb disposal team amidst violent conflict, he surprises his two subordinates, Sanborn and Eldridge, by recklessly plunging them into a deadly game of urban combat. James behaves as if he's indifferent to death. As the men struggle to control their wild new leader, the city explodes into chaos, and James' true character reveals itself in a way that will change each man forever.
Filmmakers have taken us to the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts before. Peter Berg’s intense The Kingdom (2007), Brian de Palma’s Redacted (2007) and Sam Mendes Jarhead (2005) all put us in 'The Suck’, bullets cracking into concrete walls over our heads and hostile civilians screaming at us, 'Get out! Get out!".
But, try as those skilled directors might, those movie-going experiences remained abstract; there was no doubt that we were watching from the relative safety of overpriced cinema seats. As good as they were (and The Kingdom was very good), they were no more involving than a good action film or a sad drama.
This sanitised view has hurt the credibility of Iraq-themed films to-date, but Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is less about the intensity of the conflict (though it does that with aplomb), and more about understanding the men in the heat and by extension, what defines their bravery and drives them into the path of death.
With her hand-held camera, naturalistic dialogue and authentic locations, Bigelow has finally created the defining work that fans of her cult films Near Dark (1987), Strange Days (1995) and Point Break (1991, and yes, that Point Break) always knew she had in her.
At the height of the 2004 Iraqi conflict, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team is cracking-wise and prepping for the latest bomb-in-a-car boot assignment. The camaraderie is obvious – Sgt Thompson (Guy Pearce) has led these men for a long time and his banter with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is peppered with frat boy familiarities that you might not expect from a bomb-disposal team in a hotbed warzone.
Things go bad in a sequence of stomach-tightening developments and, soon, the unit gets a new specialist, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner). A fearless, some say insane leader, James does not immediately click with his crew and this lack of faith and understanding in a conflict environment like Iraq intensifies their emotions and reactions.
With unrelenting tension, Bigelow reveals the men as they interact and perform the most delicate of military functions. The Hurt Locker, a colloquialism meaning a place where hurt and pain is unavoidable, is not a 'Danger UXB’-type nailbiter, where the tension is derived from 'Green wire or red wire?’ moments. It is an exploration of the personality traits of men who seek out those situations, and the heightened sense of ego and sense of self-worth they need to achieve their goals.
To that end, Jeremy Renner as the unhinged James is a revelation. Renner first caught industry attention as the title character in David Jacobson’s Dahmer (2002); here he finds that razor-sharp focus that propels James forward, even though it detaches him from his men and ultimately, from the loved ones he enlisted to protect. Bigelow and her leading man define the other sacrifice that most fighting men have to make – their sense of what constitutes normality in the 'real world’.
Mackie, Geraghty and Christian Camargo all create strong characterisations as the men in the unit, but this is definitely Renner’s show. Star power is minimal – single scene cameos from Pearce, David Morse and an almost-unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes, are fleeting but impactful.
The film’s narrative comes a little unstuck late on, when James befriends a local lad (Christopher Sayegh) whom he nicknames 'Beckham’, and when the family tensions from back home impact the units strained relations. They seem 'war-movie’ clichés compared to the authenticity of all that has gone before. But these are relatively small gripes when so much of the action and inherent drama of The Hurt Locker works at a pitch rarely glimpsed in American war movies. On that count alone it must rank as one of the best ever made.