The Hurt Locker is a war movie, no doubt. But war movies come in many shapes and sizes, since the only criteria is that the movie be about war or be about a particular war. Good Morning Vietnam? Still a war movie. Lions for Lambs? War movie.
Movies about the Iraq War haven’t been doing so well at the box office in recent years. It might have been because the American Government was making their own policy horror film and facing that reality on our free time was not the movie-going public’s idea of entertainment. Or maybe those movies just didn’t know how to approach the subject matter.
When I know I’m strapping in for a war movie, there are some things I have come to expect:
1) War is confusing, so there will inevitably be a scene where key information about what’s happening is withheld from you.
2) The people who serve our country are heroes, so except a character with strong moral fiber.
3) There will probably be a character who wasn’t expecting the realism of life or death situations. This character will break down in a battle situation, adding tension because he’s obviously not doing his job.
4) There will be a “What does it all mean?” scene or discussion which usually ends with something like: “War Is Hell.”
The Hurt Locker doesn’t fail to meet these criteria, though some of the above four points are hit harder than others, but what makes it different from other war movies is that it’s primarily set in combat, and that it might be the best superhero movie to come out this year.
The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, whose diverse career thus far includes vampires in Near Dark, surfers in Point Break, and the only movie poster I own but refuse to put up on my wall, the dismal submarine flick, K19: Widowmaker. She shot the movie on Super 16mm film, mostly handheld, in Jordan from a script by Iraq reporter Mark Boal. As a result, this film drops you into combat and keeps you there for the duration. The tension is immediately cranked up from the first scene where we learn that things explode and kill people.
This isn’t a movie about situations, this isn’t a movie about message, this is a movie about waking up every day knowing that things explode and kill people, and this is a fact. The uncertainty each day revolves around swimming against the tide, hoping that whatever happens in your corner of the war, it isn’t you that dies.
Enter Jeremy Renner in the role of Staff Sergeant William James. James is brought in to serve as team leader for the three-person EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team. He’s the guy that straps on the suit and does the work that gets himself ‘sploded. This is your superhero this summer. He is Mavrick before Goose, and even when you think the guy is going to have a Goose moment and start doubting his cocky attitude and impeccable talent, Jeremy Renner refuses to let the character crack. When he shows up, he scares the living shit out of Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) by not using the robot to find the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) reported somewhere down the street. James just suits up and goes for it. Later, he’ll take off his gigantic not-quite-bomb proof suit to defuse a bomb because if he’s going to die, he’d rather be comfortable.
He’s introduced as the bad ass wild man and continues to be such through the film. There is no doubt that Sgt. James is actually a hot shot, diffusing over 800 bombs and still staying alive. Even when the EOD gets pinned down by sniper fire, James proves himself as a capable leader when explosives aren’t involved. The great thing about a war movie is that you can introduce a character like James, a character who is unquestionably good at what he does – the hero of the story – and still have us fear for his life in every scene because…well, because it’s Iraq not Gotham, God dammit.
Last summer, we had Bruce Wayne asking the big questions, questions about a hero’s place in society and the power of one man on the side of good or evil making a difference; since The Dark Knight has divided superhero movies into two different camps: fantasy-escapism or realism-escapism, where does that leave real superheros in the real world?
Make no mistake, Sgt. James is a superhero. And I’m not saying that because I’m too chickenshit myself to enlist. As Winston Zedmore would say: he has the tools, he has the talent. He’s also a person addicted to the drug of war, and since we’re not talking about a sniper or a SEAL, he’s not placed in a situation where he has to kill on someone else’s orders or make a tactical decision that could turn the tides. All Sgt. James does throughout the whole film is try to save lives, sometimes in a very-real explosion type of way and other times in a more psychological manner.
So, much like Batman, the question that is the most interesting throughout the film is how this changes a person, how it affects them. While Sgt. Sanborn’s will to live practically oozes out his pores and Specialist Eldridge’s fear of death becomes his story purpose, Sgt. James still tries to save lives the only way he knows how. And these attempts aren’t always successful, but in a good superhero story, they never are.
The Hurt Locker as a war movie falls on the exact opposite of the Iraq spectrum as Jarhead. That film was suppose to create the ennui of war in the viewers, and sort of succeeded for better or for worse. The Hurt Locker doesn’t give you a lot of time to breathe, even using a (pardon the seemingly bomb related reference) ticking clock of this particular team’s deployment to move the story towards its conclusion. Kathryn Bigelow knows action, and this is an action movie on its surface.
However, it’s Jeremy Renner who shines in this film as Sgt. James. If I was only reading the dialogue on the page of the script, I would think James was almost too perfect, possibly insane. When he pulls saved bomb-parts out from under his bunk, mementos from things that almost killed him, I was afraid the scene would go all Speed on me with a speech about how a bomb is a beautiful thing that is meant to explode. What really happened was a Renner moment, where the character’s struggle to stay super, to not just become another confused hero who found himself in a war movie. The flaws in Sgt. James are never spoken, they’re acted, and when the film comes to a close, Renner’s performance suddenly rushes at your memory, revealing itself to be the center of the film, a center that is handled very quietly and very deliberately. And you just don’t see that kind of character work in summer films these days.
The Hurt Locker can currently be seen by those of you in New York and Los Angeles that have nifty art-house theaters, cinemas that are slowly getting pushed out of the summer months when everyone else is letting summer tent pole movies take their hard earned recession money.