Tense and thrilling, "The Hurt Locker" is the best film yet about the Iraq war.
Yellow wire, green wire? In "The Hurt Locker," a tense, impressively realistic portrait of a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad, the most important decisions the characters will ever make come down to this stark binary choice. Snip the wrong cord and you're red mist. How could someone volunteer for such hazardous duty?
Kathryn Bigelow, director of such adrenaline-junkie classics as "Point Break" and "Near Dark," demonstrates how the rush of danger can become a thrilling and often lethal addiction. Her new film doesn't glorify war or preach pacifism. Instead, it takes us inside the heads of three increasingly stressed-out soldiers counting the 38 days until their rotation ends.
In the hair-raising opening sequence, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) strides toward a buried bomb in a bulky concussion suit and fishbowl helmet that make him look like an astronaut. Thompson coolly sets to work as his teammates, by-the-book intelligence officer Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and edgy Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) scan the street for suspicious activity. Bigelow's camera explores the alien city -- rubble hostile to organic life, banners we can't decipher, onlookers with unreadable faces, feral cats on the prowl, all choreographing a sense of menace and tension on the deserted street. Thompson works with calm precision, but in Bigelow's theater of war, things can go wrong with shocking speed. This is not a film that leaves you wondering when the explosions are going to start.
When Thompson departs the unit, he's replaced by Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, "28 Weeks Later"), a talented technician with a cowboy streak. He's not a borderline crazy, but a man who has made his peace with death. Stripping off his blast suit at the site of a massive bomb, he announces, "If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die comfortable." A commander (David Morse), impressed by his bravado, calls him "a wild man." Morse, who is onscreen for maybe one minute, efficiently convinces us that the senior officer is a complete nutjob. Sanborn and Eldridge, devoted to the elaborate safety protocols that James disdains, worry that he'll make them collateral casualties. When they discuss arranging an accidental explosion that would remove the threat, it's unclear whether they're joking or roughing out a murder plot.
The film boasts the most riveting use of handheld cameras I have seen in ages. The look of "The Hurt Locker" is jumpy, agitated, with sudden shifts to long shots that telegraph danger, even when no blast is forthcoming. Tension simmers in every shot, and the suspense around the bomb sequences is gut-crunching. Confronted with a cat's cradle of detonator cables, James frowns and fusses like a doctor wrestling with a problematic surgery. Operating in the moment simplifies his life. He keeps a box of mementos beneath his bed that includes dozens of bomb parts and his old wedding ring, souvenirs of experiences that almost killed him.
James isn't a mechanical man. He's good-humored, and a reliable comrade in arms. A squad of British bounty hunters (led by Ralph Fiennes) draws his team into a protracted desert firefight with Al-Qaida sharpshooters. As the standoff stretches on for hours, James makes sure that their gunner, Sanborn, stays hydrated before looking after himself. A pushy kid selling pirated DVDs by the base brings out James' humanity. But playing a pickup soccer game pales beside the kick he feels defusing a cluster of bombs in a burning car.
The film hooks us on thrills, too. Bigelow gives us increasingly powerful doses of tension and explosive release, until the threat of being blown to bits begins to feel feverishly exciting. And then, when we're yearning for another hit, Bigelow turns it into a bad trip. The brutality of urban warfare hits home when James finds a dead child's stomach cavity filled with plastique, and later comes face to face with a terrified Iraqi locked into a bomb harness. Psychologically acute and thrillingly dramatic, "The Hurt Locker" blows every other Iraq war movie off the screen.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186