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Non-Review Review: The Hurt Locker

I’ve always said that great movies take the audience on a trip somewhere, so it’s really appropriate that The Hurt Locker brings viewers on a trip to hell. Or as close as it is possible to get to hell on earth. A place where flies roam the bodies of the still living in the desert heat or where even the cats walk with limps and scars or where the dead are stuffed with explosives to mount an attack upon any member of the living not callous enough to know better than to care. This is Iraq, where anything – and anyone – could turn out to be fatal and this is the story of those who survive there, those who die there and – against unlikely odds – those who thrive there.

Sadly, Guy Pierce's improvised retelling of "Moon", complete with homemade space suit, did little for troop morale...

James Cameron, the ex-husband of director Kathryn Bigalow, described this movie as the Platoon of the Iraq war. While the comparison may stand on terms of quality (they are the best depictions of their respective wars), I think that belies the individual complexities of The Hurt Locker. Stone’s examination of the generation lost to Vietnam was inherently political – a criticism of a class structure which sent the unwanted members of society to fight for it. Though you could make similar observations about the composition of the elite bomb squad that Bigalow follows here, she mostly keeps the movie apolitical. She’s smart enough to spare us the whining ideology that Hollywood’s output ion Iraq generally contains, leaving the viewer to observe the chaos in this ‘liberated’ country and reach their own conclusions.

It’s a smart move and the film is shrewd to underplay its political content. Instead, it is much more fascinated with the study of modern warfare and the men who wage it. As hard as it is to believe, given how frankly the movie presents the day-to-day violence in Iraq, it is populated with characters who thrive on such violence – by it the British bounty hunters (led by Ralph Fiennes) still quoting off playing cards or the film’s maverick bomb disposal expert, James (played to effect by Jeremy Renner). The film’s opening quotation describes war as a drug – and obviously several characters are junkies. Bigalow cleverly focuses on this angle of the story, managing to offer a suggestion that perhaps war is hell – but maybe some people thrive in hell.

The movie does hint at clichés like the war-crazed officer or the nervous recruit – stock characters in any war film – but actually develops each into fully formed characters. James, for all his bluster, is not some two-dimensional battle-ready adrenaline junkie – he is a realised character who happens to thrive in the heat of the moment (though the film is honest about exactly how risky his philosophy is to his team mates). Similarly, the squad’s more jittery member Eldridge is reliable, rather than as antsy as the “jittery” stock character would be. Perhaps the only cutout character the film doesn’t fully develop is the squad’s counsellor, Cambridge. He’s níave to a fault and has spent little time on the front line (he is a counseller, after all) – he knows nothing of what Iraq is really like. Still, the movie gives him the benefit of the doubt, ascribing him more nobility than we are used to seeing in such “desk jockey” soldiers. Every character in the film is crafted with care.

I’ve mentioned Bigalow’s skill in putting the film together, but I don’t wish to seem disingenuous. As a director, she is incredible. The film was shot in Jordan, and the countryside is captured perfectly. Arid desert populated with snipers or dirty streets hiding multiple devices. Bigalow works well with the movie’s quieter character moments, but it’s the film’s tenser sequences which stand out – a gunfight in the desert, a bomb in the boot of a Hyundi, a forced suicide bombing. In all of these scenarios, the clock is ticking and the audience is on the edge of their seat. We are reminded at multiple points that anyone can die (though the movie’s methods of hammering home that point are well established, they are no less effective for it). It’s woprth dwelling on how ridiculously effective Bigalow is at generating sincerely tension and audience adrenaline with an improvised explosive, while Roland Emmirich and Michael Bay can’t generate the same investment while blowing up the freaking planet.

Bigalow know less is more,and we feel every tremor that the explosives crew feel. A nice stylistic touch is the way she uses the camera to track the way the bomb distorts reality around it – warping the dirt on a car or forming a vacuum. It’s like those lovely Sky HD advertisements – captured in “stunning high definition”.

What we have here is incredible, it really is. At once the best examination of the Iraq war yet committed to celluloid and still the best action movie of the year. It has a great understated cast and a superbly talented director. Certainly a must-see. The only complaint I have is the slightly irritating soundtrack – which sounds like something from a cheesy old Western. Apart from that, it’s just fantastic. Highly recommended, if you haven’t caught it already.

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