The Hurt Locker follows a U.S. Army bomb disposal squad in Iraq during the summer of 2004. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) of Bravo Company are tasked with disarming and, if need be, detonating the countless homemade bombs, or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), that have killed many of their brothers-in-arms and thousands of Iraqis.
Sanborn and Eldridge are almost immediately at odds with their new team leader. James is a cowboy with little regard for military protocol, ditches his safety armor and radio while disarming a bomb, and continually blurs the line between courage and foolhardiness. To Sanborn and Eldridge, who only have 38 days left in their tour of duty, James is a wild card they didn’t need to be dealt. For a man with a unique skill set designed to help keep his fellow soldiers alive, he just might end up getting them killed.
This tautly wound thriller, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Near Dark) and scripted by journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal (In the Valley of Elah), takes an episodic, “you are there” approach to the material, embedding the viewer with this bomb disposal squad so that you feel every moment of panic and rush of adrenaline they feel. Hell, you can almost feel the beads of sweat forming on their brows. Bigelow and Boal treat war as a drug that James will never kick, and Renner offers one of the more subtly powerful performances seen this year. He finds the humor and right level of energy for his character with the same precision as James uncovers the right wires to cut. James’ adrenaline addiction is not unlike that of the literary James Bond, who’d rather die in action than be bored to death leading an average life.
Mackie’s Sgt. Sanborn makes a great foil for James; he is a level-headed, by-the-book veteran whose solid exterior masks his fears and doubts. Sanborn just wants to get his men home alive and James’ maverick manner is an ongoing threat to that objective. Geraghty is solid as Eldridge, the closest thing to an innocent in this story. These three actors make for a believable trinity of war movie archetypes, offering us glances into what makes these men tick even when the story sometimes doesn’t.
The fact that the three leads haven’t been overexposed to audiences helps a great deal, and we come to like these characters (and the actors playing them) in no time. Better known actors — Ralph Fiennes as a British soldier of fortune, Guy Pearce as a bomb disposal team leader, David Morse as a macho officer, and Evangeline Lilly as James’ wife back home — have memorable supporting roles. Fiennes and Pearce, in particular, disappear into their roles and we quickly get past the momentary distraction of seeing bigger name thespians popping up in glorified cameos.
Unfortunately, there is a point where the film goes from being “you are there” to “you are in a movie.” In what was likely an attempt to give James more of a character arc, the story has him break away from his squad mates for a spell to satisfy a personal mission. This passage doesn’t ring as true as all the sequences that preceded it and it breaks the film’s narrative rhythm, a misstep that the movie never quite recovers from. It’s a shame because up until that point the film had damn near been a perfect thriller.
Not having served in Iraq, I can’t categorically state that The Hurt Locker is the most authentic, unbiased film yet about that war, but it certainly feels that way. But this movie isn’t about politics; it’s about survival. From the opening scene, you understand that no character is safe and that death can come at any moment. That terrifying uncertainty fuels all the drama in the story and helps make The Hurt Locker not only the best film made so far about the war in Iraq, but also one of the best thrillers of the year.