The Hurt Locker is the best movie I've seen this year, and the best war film I've seen in quite awhile. A series of vignettes depicting the last days of a three-man EOD team before they rotate out of 2004-era Iraq, the film moves briskly from one frightening encounter to another, as though the movie is trying to give some sense of the terror of war. While terrifying, The Hurt Locker never becomes anything more than action movie - a gritty, powerful and highly effective action movie, but in the end, just an action movie.
Directed by Katheryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break), the film's three protagonists are James, Sanborn, and Eldridge. James is a veteran EOD man, an adrenaline junkie in love with war and nothing else. Sanborn is a professional just looking to get home but unsure of what he really hopes to find there. Eldridge is a younger soldier haunted by a death he might have prevented and generally burnt out by Iraq. Besides a few scenes inside the wire that define the characters' backgrounds and relationships, the bulk of the film is taken up by six set-pieces on the battleground, where the characters either have to defuse improvised explosives or dodge ambushes.
Despite an opening quote about war being a drug, The Hurt Locker doesn't really have any message. The greatest focus is on James, and the he could be seen as an archetype for modern-day America, so desperately dissatisfied with our suburban Wal-Mart existence that we crave overseas combat just to jolt us from our ennui, that we might have once fought out of love for democracy and freedom but have come to love war for its own sake.
But that's a stretch: this film is about explosions, about men facing death and being manly about it (the scene where James and Sanborn punch each other comes off more like a hurt/comfort slashfic than male bonding). The character of James - the angst-ridden death-obsessed badass who is the best there is at what he does, but what he does best isn't very nice - might've seemed original once upon time before almost every action movie made since the 1950's used that character as its protagonist. Jeremy Renner's portrayal of James is okay, but he is so underwritten than there's just no depth.
Which is also true for the movie. The Hurt Locker packs an immediate edge because of its timeliness, and it will mistakenly be lauded as the first movie made about the Iraq War to capture the grunts-eye view of the war. However, it's not Platoon or The Big Red One or All Quiet on the Western Front - I may be naive or uninformed, but I doubt that the average grunt is like James, so high on war that he often forsakes basic precautions just to get to the action quicker. If the film focuses on Sanborn or Eldridge, it might've be closer to The Grunt's Tale that critics want to paint it as, but James is such an action hero cliche that The Hurt Locker can't rise above those genre roots. And while the film's portrayal of almost all Iraqis as sinister figures ever-ready to explode hidden bombs may be spot-on for a film that is from the American soldier's perspective, it also means that the film can't be taken seriously as a more general perspective on the war.
But this is a good movie, a damn fine movie, one that belongs alongside other full-muscled if simplistic military meditations like Hell is for Heroes or Hamburger Hill (it starts with "H" too!). And if Bigelow had mixed in some well-considered commentary, The Hurt Locker would have probably ended up sacrificing its visceral energy for labored pretentiousness. It may just be an action movie, but the film does reminds us that you don't need robots terminating or transforming to make an exciting summer blockbuster: you can also do it with poorly thought-out tragic misadventures in the Middle East.