The making of honest action movies has become so rare that Kathryn Bigelow's magnificent The Hurt Locker was shown mostly in art cinemas rather than multiplexes. That's fine; the picture is a work of art. But it also delivers more kinetic excitement, more breath-bating suspense, more putting-you-right-there in the danger zone than all the brain-dead, visually incoherent wrecking derbies hogging mall screens. Partly it's a matter of subject. The movie focuses on an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, the guys whose more or less daily job is to disarm the homemade bombs that have accounted for most U.S. casualties in Iraq. But even more, the film's extraordinary tension derives from the precision and intelligence of Bigelow's direction. She gets every sweaty detail and tactical nuance in the close-up confrontation of man and bomb, while keeping us alert to the volatile wraparound reality of an ineluctably foreign environment--hot streets and blank-walled buildings full of onlookers, some merely curious and some hostile, perhaps thumbing a cellphone that could become a trigger. This is exemplary moviemaking. You don't need CGI, just a human eye, and the imagination to realize that, say, the sight of dust and scale popped off a derelict car by an explosion half a block away delivers more shock value than a pixelated fireball.
The setting may be Iraq in 2004, but it could just as well be Thermopylae; The Hurt Locker
is no "Iraq War movie." Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal--who did time as a journalist embed with an EOD unit--align themselves with neither supporters nor opponents of the U.S. involvement. There's no politics here. War is just the job the characters in the movie do. One in particular, the supremely resourceful staff sergeant played by Jeremy Renner, is addicted to the almost nonstop adrenaline rush and the opportunity to express his esoteric, life-on-the-edge genius. The hurt locker of the title is a box he keeps under his bunk, filled with bomb parts and other signatory memorabilia of "things that could have killed me." That none of it has killed him so far is no real consolation. In this movie, you never know who's going to go and when; even high-profile talent (we won't name names here) is no guarantee. But one thing can be guaranteed, and that is that almost every sequence in the movie becomes a riveting, often fiercely enigmatic set piece. This is Kathryn Bigelow's best film since 1987's Near Dark
. It could also be the best film of 2009. --Richard T. Jameson