Dictionary.com (the new generation’s “Webster’s”) defines “drug” as “a habit-forming medicinal or illicit substance.” The tagline for The Hurt Locker reads, “War is a drug.” Addictions have killed people the world over. An addiction to war is bound to. That very notion is dissected, analyzed and perhaps explained in The Hurt Locker, as examined by a triumvirate of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (that’s bomb squad to you) soldiers set in the ongoing Iraq War.
Like all good movies are supposed to, the action starts off with a BANG. Following a group of bomb squad infantry, you know to expect the literal meaning of the word. Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) and his two underlings, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), send a remote-controlled bot out to inspect a suspicious heap of material in the middle of the road. When discovered as something that goes “boom,” the group decides to detonate it with a belt of C4. With detonative substance in tow, the bot makes the slow journey back to ground zero. An audience of Iraqis appear at their balconies to oversee the instantaneous destruction. A hitch. The Army-constructed wagon holding the C4 breaks a wheel. Sergeant Thompson must do the job himself in full padded bomb squad suit regalia. Knowing the potential energy hidden inside the metallic capsule and the isolation Thompson faces on his journey to disarmament, the others are encouraged to seek out anything suspect. A larger crowd emerges to watch the scene unfold, and as Thompson lays the C4 on top of the explosive, a man is spotted nearby with a cell phone in his hand. Specialist Eldridge has his eye on him. He screams at the man to obey him. Thompson sprints away from danger as fast as an additional 80 pounds will allow him. Eldridge has the man within his sights, but doesn’t pull the trigger of his machine gun. Instead, the man pushes the trigger in his phone.
Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) joins Bravo Company with just 39 days left in their rotation. He’s a far cry from Sergeant Thompson. The hardest of core, James throws caution, sense and Army-constructed bomb robots into the desert wind. A type-A personality who leads with his headgear, his first day on the job sees him ignore his subordinates’ pleas to use the robot, lay a smoke bomb in his tracks to isolate him from visibility, stare down a suspected taxi car-bomb with a handgun and defuse several interlinked high explosives as they rise from the gravel like spider webs. For James, this is all in a day’s work. Naturally neither of his two misplaced cohorts are too pleased about his exploits, but it’s impossible to argue with the man’s results. Even a colonel stops to offer his congratulations, fawning over James’ accomplishments like a college freshman over Dane Cook.
Trouble doesn’t necessarily follow James, but rather he is magnetized to it. He single-handedly turns Bravo Company into its own private warzone, consistently dragging his regiment closer and closer to death than even a bomb squad would normally encounter. James is not a robotic product of testosterone. He is as human as you or I. He has a wife and small child waiting at home for him. He befriends a young Iraqi boy, who sells bootleg DVD’s near their base camp. He keeps every detonator from every bomb he disassembles to remind him of how thin the line between life and death is: as small as a switch. It’s the addiction to the sport of war that propels him, where every moment comes down to sudden death.
Writer, Mark Boal (story credit for In the Valley of Elah), spent time as a journalist covering the Iraq war and specifically some EOD teams. This experience shows in the details of the horrors these young men face on a daily basis. The threats they encounter are relentless. As soon as one bomb is disarmed, another awaits. A metallic canister hasn’t been this menacing since oxygen tanks were forced into the mouth of “Jaws.” Boal doesn’t resort to the classic suspense trick of red wire/blue wire decisions, either. In fact, I don’t recall the word “wire” being used throughout the film. Suspense is completely built through the potential energy of the inanimate object. This fierce power is established from the first scene and we’re kept keenly aware of the impact that can rise with one false move.
Director, Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), deserves much credit for creating an environment that may seem derivative, but is wholly original. Never did I imagine that bomb disarming could get more thrilling than the aforementioned wire-cut decision, especially when the suit used for such a task is so cumbersome, allowing for stilted movement at best. This is not a slow, methodical film. It manages to be in-your-face, even throughout a sniper shootout in the vast emptiness of the desert. You experience the heat and dry air along with the characters. I had never yearned for a lightly-sweetened beverage so bad in my life. This movie could do for Capri Sun what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces. Bigelow also knows how to make the audience feel the raw power of the incendiary devices, showing the detailed effect of how objects react to shockwaves while the rumbling bass rattles your core.
Both Renner and Mackie are up for up for Independent Spirit Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. You have to imagine Renner has little chance, going up against heavyweights in heavily-seen films like Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Javier Bardem and Richard Jenkins. However, it is absolutely no disrespect to Renner or his performance. I had only seen him in The Assassination of Jesse James before this, and he didn’t get a chance to make much of an impression. In The Hurt Locker, he is captivating. His Staff Sergeant James is a great character, which he completely embodies. You know that he’s immersed himself in the war and don’t think he’d be able to recover if it were to ever end. To borrow the term from The Shawshank Redemption, he’s been “institutionalized.” Mackie has also grown considerably since Papa Doc in 8 Mile, and he looks to have paved the way for a long career.
The Hurt Locker carries no particular political bent, which in today’s film market is a bit of a rarity. It simply aims to show the dangers an EOD team faces at a time of war, and allows you to step into their shoes, however unwittingly, and experience the situations they see on a daily basis. This is their life. It’s left on the line from moment to moment. No matter how horrific, some people can’t climb out of the hole of war. The addiction is just too gripping.