The action film has gradually become a discipline of structure rather than strategy: Place a flirtatious dialogue here; release a deafening barrage of bullets or lasers right here; the perfect moment for a father/brother/partner/best friend to be slain, to invoke vengeance in the main character? It's right there. As much as one must admire big-budget action films with a level, working head such as Star Trek and last year's Iron Man, action films, more and more, feel like a producer's game rather than a filmmaker's, a shell game rather than a magic show.
Then in comes Kathryn Bigelow, swaggering and swinging-for-the-fences after a seven-year absence from the biz. Her last film, K-19: The Widowmaker, was overlong and overdramatized in equal measures, but it certainly wasn't an unambitious work: What courage it must take to make Harrison Ford don a Russian accent? In the late '80s/early '90s, however, the 58-year-old Bigelow owned every genre she entered. She returns now with The Hurt Locker, a pulverizing and madly suspenseful minefield placed in the middle of the minuscule terrain of Iraq occupation narratives. Article continues below
The focus here is on one of the U.S. Army's bomb disposal units, which is staffed by three men given the most fatalistic of tasks: Defusing the bombs. Bigelow gives us a fine team: intelligence Lt. J.T. Stanton (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce). The film opens, on one of several craftsman-like studies in suspense mechanics, on the team disarming a bomb that suddenly goes off. Pebbles of dry earth, grains of sand, and specks of rust eject and hover in the air; the staff sergeant's protective helmet is splattered with red. Our hero, the film's lead, is dead not five minutes into the runtime.
Surprises are one of the key weapons in Bigelow's arsenal. The director declares from the outset that no one has a pass in Baghdad or, by extension, in her film. Soon enough, J.T. and Owen find themselves under the supervision of Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a fiendish adrenaline junkie and, as another soldier puts it, a "hot shit" defuser. They encounter unimaginable situations: a stand-off with a pair of lethal sharpshooters, a search-and-rescue for a kidnapped soldier and, in its most staggering atrocity, disarming a bomb that has been placed inside the corpse of a young boy that William may or may not have been friends with.
Though it is beholden to the war genre, The Hurt Locker is most certainly an action film, one that stakes its discipline in timing, precise movement, and unpredictability. Big shootouts are scrapped for monumental acts of echoing tension; the glory of survival has been transcended by the psychological toll of war's gone-tomorrow mindset. Where you would expect the bigger names (Pearce, the superb Ralph Fiennes) to be the houses of moral stability, they are either casualties or minor figurines in this crashing menagerie. Like a flash of white heat, it is Renner's savage performance that anchors the film in the decaying not of morality but of emotional stability. Stanton, whom Mackie portrays with a natural intelligence, cries hysterically about the need for a son, but when William goes home, there is no pulse to his home life. Too many decisions with too little at risk.
The viewer, as well, becomes emotionally deaf to the moments of sincere calm. The Hurt Locker mirrors several classic war films, none more than Terence Malick's sublime The Thin Red Line. Where Malick's film permeated the sense of brotherhood with unsentimental ease, Bigelow stresses the idea of singularity in "the unit" -- every man for himself. The strategy of the Korea conflict has melted into a world of complete disarray, where the army has no outfit or plan besides bedlam. There have been three great narrative films made about the Iraq occupation thus far: Battle for Haditha, In the Valley of Elah, and Ridley Scott's rousing, underrated Body of Lies. Like those films, the irrepressible Hurt Locker is of its time because it understands the key element in modern warfare: chaos reigns supreme.