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MOVIE REVIEW

The Hurt Locker

In Iraq, explosively high stakes: Soldiers at work in the fog of war take precedence over politics in ‘Hurt Locker’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 10, 2009
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Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dismantles roadside bombs as part of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad. In addition to being very good at it, he’s also very taken with the excitement of risk and the pleasure he receives from locating and detonating bombs. In “The Hurt Locker,’’ the thrill is unexpectedly contagious. You don’t realize how riveted you are until you’re back on American soil observing James in civilian life. He seems discontent in his role as husband, father, and man of the house, like an athlete who misses the game.

Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have made a unique film about war. Other movies have looked and felt the way this one does - hot, suspenseful, as if something could go wrong at any moment. But “The Hurt Locker’’ suppresses the politics of war, particularly this war where the politics always seem to hover, unstable, in the ether. It focuses, instead, on men who exist in combat’s shadow. The bomb squad arrives on the scene in the grace period before daily calm becomes deadly chaos. Troops hang back. Iraqi civilians hide. The bomb squad waxes poetic.

In the opening minutes, Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), of Bravo Company, leads a conversation about the art of the explosion, the way the clouds of smoke and flame fill the sky. In their understanding, the plume itself is distinguishable from the violence that produced it. Their rapture is theoretical, since, not much later, a botched dismantling shows us the real thing in all its grisliness and dreadful immediacy. The beauty of the detonation (rocks seem to levitate off the ground) can’t compete with the bomb’s devastation.

Just that fast, Boal and Bigelow have given us the astronomical stakes for these men and what it means for things to go wrong. Death is always a millimeter away. They keep romance on the one hand and reality on the other. The accident makes room for Sergeant James to join Bravo. His two young comrades, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Todd Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), don’t know what to do with him. When they meet, only 38 days remain in their tour, and James’s unorthodox approach suggests they might not make it to 37.

In his first assignment with the solemn Sanborn and the underripe Eldridge, he forgoes the robotic drone the squad uses to assist in detonations and gets right up close to a possible improvised explosive device. “I think I found something,’’ he mumbles as much to himself and to the bomb as to Sanborn and Eldridge, who provide anxious cover in the dwindling minutes they have until insurgents descend. He’s the Bomb Whisperer.

It’s recommended that James wear a thickly padded green suit made of, among many other things, Kevlar and fire-retardant polymers. I looked up such a suit on a website called Security Pro. If you want a sobering read, treat yourself to the detailed description of what’s in an EOD suit and how much one costs. You don’t need any of that information to let out a nervous laugh when James removes his while casing a car for a bomb, but it might deepen your appreciation for just how riskily eccentric he can be. “If I’m gonna die,’’ he tells Sanborn and Eldridge, “I’m gonna die comfortable.’’

James is a complex creation, too feeling toward others to be called a renegade, not feeling enough to make a full commitment to domesticity. Under his bed he keeps a crate of bomb parts, things, he says, that almost killed him. The movie’s title comes from the colloquial expression for a place of pain, like a war. But that crate is a sort of hurt locker, too.

Renner’s performance underscores James’s contradictions. It’s a very smart piece of acting that balances James’s love of his vocation with his pathologically cavalier approach to it. The actor has the soft face and kind eyes I’ve seen in soldiers at the airport awaiting deployment. Of course, I’ve also seen Renner use that same softness to play Jeffrey Dahmer, in 2002’s “Dahmer,’’ and what was so creepy about that performance was how utterly natural it was.

Renner is so good in “The Hurt Locker’’ that he makes you wish the other characters were as fully written. Boal, who spent a number of months as an embedded reporter in Iraq, has written some colorful caricatures for Ralph Fiennes and David Morse to play. But most scenes Renner shares with Mackie and Geraghty are richly acted, particularly in a well-drawn sequence during a desert shootout that injects urgency into the strange comedy of things.

Another movie might have tried to turn James into a hero. Or maybe we’ve never seen a William James before because there’s nothing innately glorious about his eccentric enthusiasm. He’s on the front line in a way that wouldn’t interest macho directors like Tony Scott and his brother Ridley, both of whom have made films about either the military or combat. These characters are characters that don’t blow things up.

Bigelow is no stranger to pyrotechnics or the slick contours of an action sequence. She also made “Near Dark,’’ (1987), “Blue Steel’’ (1989), and “Point Break’’ (1991), three completely different kinds of thrillers. But the beauty of her career, even in action films that don’t entirely work, like 1995’s “Strange Days’’ and 2002’s “K-19: The Widowmaker,’’ resides in the grace she affords her male characters.

In “The Hurt Locker,’’ Bigelow finds unexpected ways to express empathy and sensitivity. Rather than trace the path a bullet takes to its human target, she focuses on the dance a casing does after it’s left a rifle. The movie manages not to glorify war. It even implies that James is addicted to the role he plays in this one. But what we’re allowed so vividly to see and feel when James disarms a bomb is almost no different from watching a conductor seduce an orchestra or a chef produce a meal. It moves him. That’s a feeling both distinct from war and inextricable from it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE HURT LOCKER Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Written by: Mark Boal

Starring: Jeremy Renner

At: Boston Common and Kendall Square

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: R (war violence and language)

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