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"The Hurt Locker"
A review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

"The Hurt Locker" begins with a quote from .Pulizter Prize-winning author Christopher Hedges. Here's a fragment of it: "...war is a drug." Since Mr. Hedges took an honorary doctorate from Starr King Seminary, there may be some who will approach "The Hurt Locker" with trepidation. Starr King is a Unitarian-Universalist institution in Berkeley, California, but Mark Boal's script is neither religious nor political. The film celebrates the work the grunts have been doing for us (tour after tour after tour in Iraq for so long), though I'm not sure if "celebrate" is the right word. Most assuredly, the film is a brisk, brutal salute to them as was "In the Valley of Elah" (2007).

Boal wrote a magazine article that was adapted by director Paul Haggis for the "Valley of Elah" script, a movie all but ignored by moviegoers as well as Hollywood, except for Tommy Lee Jones getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He lost to co-cast member, Javier Bardem in "No Country For Old Men."

While writing the review of "Elah," I found Boal was at work on a screenplay for "The Hurt Locker," which was to be directed by Northern Californian, Kathryn Bigelow, and released in 2009. I've been holding my breath since then for "Locker," hoping to find it as moving as "Elah." Now, I'm a little disappointed---not that "Locker" isn't good enough---but that it's even more gripping than "Elah" and I've been raving about "Elah" all this time. Go figure.

Modesto, California native, Jeremy Renner ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") plays Staff Sergeant William James, who's assigned to a US Army IED disposal squad in Iraq. Renner captures the role firmly and memorably. His features, through these eyes, are an interesting cross between Daniel Craig and Russell Crowe. But his accent is all American.

Jeremy Renner

Jeremy Renner

Anthony Mackie ("Million Dollar Baby") is Staff Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. Mackie's performance might make Samuel L. Jackson take notice. Brian Geraghty ("Jarhead") plays a mentally stressing specialist named Owen Eldridge. Sometimes, Specialist Eldridge does shrink time off duty.

Sergeant James comes into the Iraq fray and occupation following the death of Sergeant Mark Thompson (Guy Pearce), who succumbs for not being so lucky defusing an Improvised Explosive Device that's triggered remotely by an al Qaeda type fellow's cell phone. Thompson's replacement is James. Welcome to the club, Billy.

The quirky, brusk James, who's nobody's boss, is on the ground in Baghdad away from a sinking marriage and trying not to think about his wife and their baby boy. (Only Clark Kent and Sergeant James have nerves of steel.) James is quiet but cocky in his efficient disconnection of deadly explosives under the rocks and sands of Baghdad streets or hidden in the city's abandoned vehicles. (I was reminded of the character Kip in "The English Patient," as he defuses a dud bomb near an Italian river). To a greater degree, "The Hurt Locker" hangs its continuing tension on several bomb-defusing and detonation scenes that have become so commonplace over recent years in US news reports and Iraqi lives.

Taking life and death risks for James is sort of like you and I brushing our teeth. He worries Sanborn and Eldridge as he goes about his work almost as he would a game. They're the grunts who give James cover as he tromps in his cool but very hot bomb suit to clip wires on funny-looking, seemingly inert, dust-covered steel vessels. Usually, Sanborn and Eldridge do their jobs at a distance where it's considerably safer, but just as edgy.

Other tense moments fall into place among the defusing/detonation scenes. One includes a lengthy desert fire fight the trio has with enemy snipers while checking out some covert Brit soldiers. Surprisingly, one of those is played by an actor usually seen as a leading man. Ralph Fiennes ("In Bruges") often takes smaller parts in interesting and, sometimes, consequential films. This is one of them.

Fiennes is used sparingly. I'd guess that's so his scene persona doesn't get in the way. The same goes for Guy Pearce's cameo.

Father-to-son connections play heavily in real time in Iraq with a young boy who hawks goods to James on a filthy, poverty-stricken street. James also fondly reflects on his baby boy back home in the States. Sergeant Sanborn isn't married but confesses near the close of the film he wants to have a son too.

Along with the up close combat and plight of these US soldiers, "The Hurt Locker" amazes and never falters with its persistent dissection of male bonding and father-to-son relationships. Many war films have emphasized such a theme---the male under stress, particularly. What quickly comes to mind are "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "The Deer Hunter," The Thin Red Line" "Saving Private Ryan" and of course, "In the Valley of Elah."

What makes "Locker" seem so ironically more Mucho-Macho is it was directed by a woman. My take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she's---if you'll excuse the expression---a "big girl." Her direction of Boals' script is powerfully incisive to what makes men tick. On seeing her film and Charlie Rose interviewing her about it on PBS have made me wonder if she might know what makes the human male tick better than we guys do.

Kathryn Bigelow

Director Kathryn Bigelow

She effectively and considerably uses jerky, hand-held camera work by Barry Ackroyd and superb editing by Chis Innis and Bob Murawski. "Locker" looks and tastes like a dusty, steely Baghdad documentary. Shot in Jordan and British Columbia, Canada.

Bigelow also seems smart, articulate, low-key and the antithesis of arrogance. Her closing comment on the Rose interview was to say that appearing on his program was an honor. A good deal of what she might have is a clear eye and humility much like Mark Boal and Chris Hedges, the guy who wrote that opening graphic seen in the film, "...war is a drug;" the product of that specific addiction being Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"The Hurt Locker" is the best film I've seen so far in 2009. I recommend it and advise approaching the picture not with trepidation but in the straight ahead/heads up manner Staff Sergeant William James does as he slogs, again and again, toward another IED hidden somewhere in the sand.

Not to piss-off Sly Stallone: I'd call "The Hurt Locker," not macho, but macho verité.

"The Hurt Locker" official site. Now in limited release.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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