Unreal Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

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I once read an album review for The DarknessPermission to Land.  It stated something along the lines of that if the band was serious, the album was a 2 out of 10.  If they were joking, it was a 9.  I think I feel the same way about The Hurt Locker.  The thing is, I must be missing the joke.  Everyone seems to love this movie (97% at rottentomatotes.com), and my man Nattyb recently wrote how great it was, too.  I can’t say I agree, though.  I went into The Hurt Locker expecting a war movie, but what I got felt more like an 80s action movie set in the context of Baghdad 2004.  The battle scenes were intense, but the terrible dialogue, inconsistent tone, and eyeroll-inducing male-bonding and action movie cliches prevent The Hurt Locker from being a good film.  Oscar contender, as some claim?  God, I sure hope not.  Keep reading for the full review; minor spoilers ahead.

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Let me start by saying that I won’t be commenting on whether or not this movie realistically portrays the war in Iraq.  Although I have read that many soldiers have pointed out numerous inconsistencies (a bomb squad would never ride around by itself, for example, or how an officer who punches his superior receives no discipline whatsoever, or an EOD tech would also happen to be an expert sniper capable of hitting a moving target hundreds of yards away), I have never served in the military and so I’m not really qualified to opine on how realistic The Hurt Locker’s version of war is.  With that said and out of the way, let’s get to the merits of the film.

What I’m going to write about The Hurt Locker will be fairly critical, so I’ll begin with what I liked about it.  For starters, I thought Jeremy Renner turned in a terrific performance.  He did a good job with the limited material and did a great job acting without speaking, a necessity considering how awful the dialogue was.  Renner is clearly the best actor of anyone in this film, and he deserves praise for his role as Sgt. William James.

Secondly, the battle scenes and bomb-disamring scenes were very intense.  The action was fast and came with a feeling of dread, and when James is in the process of disarming a bomb, you’re bracing for the explosion.  I enjoyed the use of the cumbersome bomb suit, especially when we the audience are given the chance to “wear it,” looking through the face shield as if it’s us who are to disarm the bomb.  I particularly liked the opening scene (with a cameo from Guy Pearce), and the idea that a bomb could go off made for a very tense few minutes.  I was definitely holding my breath.

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be any political message with regard to war in The Hurt Locker, which is somewhat refreshing.  But that’s because The Hurt Locker isn’t a war movie.  I’ll explain why in a little bit.

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Now to what I didn’t like about The Hurt Locker, which is pretty much everything else.  This movie was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose most famous work is probably Point Break.  It’s OK to have action cliches and one-dimensional rebel characters in movies like Point Break, but when you take that tone and set it in the context of a very real war, it comes off as utterly ridiculous.  At one point, I had to ask myself if the movie was really just a black comedy, spoofing tired action cliches of the 80s.  When we first see Sgt. James, it’s akin to Stallone’s appearance in the beginning of Cobra.  He’s got a bad ass attitude, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and nobody’s gonna tell him what to do.  Cool in the 80s, absurd in 2009.

The characters are completely one-dimensional, and the atrocious dialogue doesn’t help one bit.  Sgt. James is a wild, hard-drinking cowboy with a reckless attitude, and if you didn’t know that, the blatant statements (“you’re a wild man”) will clue you in.  He’s Maverick from Top Gun; he’s John Wayne.  There’s nothing new or special about him, and his “bad ass” persona goes so far that it’s not to be believed.  James removes his bomb suit before disarming a bomb, and everything is casual and easy for him.  He’s the bad boy we’re supposed to think is cool.  At one point, he chugs about half a bottle of vodka – not because he’s an alcoholic or he’s suffering, no.  Because it’s “cool.”

And then there’s JT Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie), who is everything James isn’t: by-the-book, neurotic, and for the most part pretty straight-laced.  They don’t get along at first, but after a very convenient and formulaic scene in which they are forced to work together (not to disarm a bomb, no, to take over a sniper rifle and shoot some bad guys), they learn to trust each other.  Never mind the fact that Sanborn had just a few scenes earlier contemplated killing James.  Along with Sanborn is Owen Eldridge, the token scared baby of the group.  His character adds very little, save for setting up the death of his military “therapist,” one that anyone could see coming from miles away.

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The flat, cardboard characters aren’t really the fault of the actors who play them – again, I praise Renner’s performance – but rather, it’s the laughably bad dialogue and action movie cliches that make The Hurt Locker seem more like a made-for-TV movie or a play written by an 8th grader than a film worthy of acclaim.  There’s no plot, just a bunch of scenes strung together with unrealistic male bonding that show how AWESOME and RAD Sgt. James is.  Perhaps most important is that we’re never shown why the characters are the way they are – was it war?  home?  both? – they just simply are that way.

One of those scenes includes this exchange, after Sgt. James presents Eldridge and Sanborn with a box filled with parts of bombs he has disarmed over the years:

James: This box is filled with things that nearly killed me.

Edridge (holding up a ring on a chain): What’s this one?

James: My wedding ring.  Like I said, things that nearly killed me.

ZING!

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We’re also treated to a scene in which James and the boys drink and rough house a bit – which is fine – but it soon deteriorates to “So, you got a girl back home?”  Every line of dialogue feels written and contrived, and it seems as though these scenes were thrown in simply as filler for the action scenes.  There’s no character development, because 1) the characters don’t change and 2) we already know everything we need to know about the one-dimensional characters halfway through the movie.  In fact, there are really no characters at all; they’re all essentially caricatures.  Which brings me to my next point…

The Hurt Locker isn’t a war movie.  There’s nothing to be said about the war in Iraq, who our enemies are (anonymous, hostile Arabs conveniently show up when we’re in need of action), who is planting the bombs, why the bombs are there, are so on.  The movie doesn’t even bother asking these questions.  Instead, this is an action movie, complete with all the cliches of the genre, about a man who is addicted to his service of disarming bombs.  Unfortunately, and unlike The Darkness, I don’t think The Hurt Locker is self-aware of its presentation.  It’s a shame, really, because it would have made for a hell of a black comedy – was anyone else reminded of Catch 22 when the number of days remaining in the unit’s service was shown on the screen?

In summary, I do think The Hurt Locker has some redeeming value, particularly Renner and some of the action sequences.  But to call this a war movie, let alone a good one, is absurd.  It’s Point Break in Baghdad; it’s Top Gun meets Jarhead.  There’s nothing wrong with fun action movies, but it doesn’t work when set in the very serious context of the Iraq war.  I am sure I thoroughly grasp everything The Hurt Locker has attempted to convey, which is why it makes it all the more bewildering that I seem to be the only one who really didn’t think this movie was good.  Maybe I’m missing something, though, and I’d love it if it could be explained to me.  If it’s to show the stress that war places on soldiers, or even just a portrait of a soldier addicted to war, The Hurt Locker fails miserably.

I know that people are generally really happy with this film, so I expect some scathing comments in response to my review.  I only hope that at least a couple of them can enlighten me.

2 out of 5 stars


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