'The Hurt Locker'

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" doesn't bring anything new to the table of grunts-in-the-firing-line movies.

War may be hell, but watching war movies can also be hell, especially when they don’t get to the point. Often gripping at a straight thriller level, but increasingly weakened by its fuzzy (and hardly original) psychology, Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” centered on an elite U.S. bomb squad in Baghdad, doesn’t bring anything new to the table of grunts-in-the-firing-line movies. Modest biz looks likeliest.

Though pic has yet to garner a U.S. distrib, its B.O. fortunes, especially Stateside, will depend to a large extent on its reception at Toronto, and on whether marketing the film more as a thriller will be enough to overcome auds’ resistance to Iraq War movies. Internationally, Bigelow’s cult rep could be a further plus on the back of good reviews.

The major problem with the script by journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad in Baghdad four years ago, is that it’s unclear where the drama in “Locker” really lies. It’s emphatically not a “cut the red wire!” countdown thriller — these guys get by on old-fashioned guts and instinct rather than sissy hardware — but it’s not a pure men-under-stress drama either.

In fact, Boal’s script stirs a little of everything into the pot, which boils down into seven setpieces divided by brief intervals of camaraderie/conflict among the three protags. Three of the setpieces don’t even involve defusing bombs, and are basically there to broaden the action and deepen the characters. But whether it’s the adrenaline rush, a death wish, macho posturing or just “doin’ a job” that drives these men is little clearer by the end than it is at the beginning.

After an opening quotation that “war is a drug,” pic jumps straight into the action as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, led by iron-jawed Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), is called in to examine a suspicious pile of rubble. When the robotic hardware goes on the fritz, Thompson “suits up” in protective clothing and does the job by hand — recklessly, as it proves.

Attention-grabbing opening reel — with handheld, slightly grainy lensing, nervous cutting and one sound effect that will test any theater’s woofers — sets the tone, and much of the content, of the next two hours. When Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) arrives to take Thompson’s place as head of the three-man unit, it’s clear he’s even more of a cowboy than his predecessor.

Conflict between him and his deputy, by-the-book Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), comes to a head early on. Meanwhile, cornball Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is taking voluntary counseling with a Bravo Company colonel, Cambridge (Christian Camargo).

Unlike many men-in-war movies, “Locker” concentrates on a small number of characters that are clearly identifiable from the start. Even in the setpieces involving considerable military backup, the dramatic focus is kept tight on the three protags. Especially in their first two assignments, this works very well, with James the guy on the ground while Sanborn rat-a-tats orders as he and Eldridge scan the surrounding buildings for snipers or trigger men.

It’s when the movie starts to fan out at the 45-minute mark — with a developing friendship between James and a jive-talkin’ Arab kid, “Beckham” (Christopher Sayegh) — that the script starts to show signs of artificially straining for character depth. As the end of Bravo Company’s rotation approaches, James threatens to go off the rails in some highly manufactured (and not especially enlightening) ways. Flip-flop final reel is limp.

After a couple wobbly entries (“The Weight of Water,” “K-19: The Widowmaker”), it’s good to see Bigelow again flexing her gift for sheer physicality. Even when the men are mouthing commonplace dialogue or male-bonding cliches, there’s a real feel for them on a flesh-and-blood level. Helmer’s ability to create a sense of ever-present menace, seen in her early pictures, pumps up scenes in which the trio is silently “observed” by hostile/curious Arab bystanders.

Film steers clear of questioning the U.S. presence in Iraq and, with a couple brief exceptions, treats its entire Arab cast as either faceless cannon fodder or potential threats. This may sit uneasily with some viewers, even though it’s clear early on that this is more a dramatic choice than a political one.

Renner is fine as James, especially in his freewheeling early scenes played off against his suspicious colleagues. It’s basically Renner’s film: Mackie and Geraghty are just OK, and other roles are bits. Ralph Fiennes pops up briefly as a Brit mercenary, and David Morse contributes a memorable thumbnail of a complete military psychopath.

As the 1949 bomb-squaddie classic “The Small Back Room” proved, antsy cutting and camerawork and gritty processing aren’t necessarily de rigueur for building tension. Still, Barry Ackroyd’s lensing, halfway between faux-docu and regular drama, is highly emotive, equally textured in sun and shade, catching the immensely realistic detail in pic’s production and costume design. (Like Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” the film was shot in Jordan.)

Editing of the mountain of footage captured by multiple Super 16 cameras is aces, kinetic but not aggravatingly so. Music is either bland or simply atmospheric.

The Hurt Locker

Production

A Voltage Pictures presentation, in association with Grosvenor Park Media and FCEF, of a Voltage Pictures, First Light, Kingsgate Films production. (International sales: Voltage, Los Angeles.) Produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier, Greg Shapiro. Executive producer, Tony Mark. Co-producer, Donall McCusker. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay, Mark Boal.

Crew

Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editors, Bob Murawski, Chris Innis; music, Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders; music supervisor, John Bissell; production designer, Karl Juliusson; art director, David Bryan; costume designer, George Little; sound (Dolby Digital), Ray Beckett; sound designer, Paul N.J. Ottosson; stunt coordinator, Robert Young; special effects supervisor, Richard Stutsman; visual effects, Company 3; associate producers, Jack Schuster, Jenn Lee; assistant director, David Ticotin; second unit camera, Niels Reedtz Johansen; casting, Mark Bennett. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Staff Sgt. William James - Jeremy Renner Sgt. J.T. Sanborn - Anthony Mackie Specialist Owen Eldridge - Brian Geraghty Sgt. Matt Thompson - Guy Pearce Contractor Team Leader - Ralph Fiennes Col. Reed - David Morse Connie James - Evangeline Lilly Col. John Cambridge - Christian Camargo "Beckham" - Christopher Sayegh

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