In Theaters: The Hurt Locker

Movieline Score: 9

There are a few events in the early lead for this summer's Biggest Hollywood Shame -- Land of the Lost doomed by mismarketing, Eddie Murphy disappearing from the face of the planet, and Kathryn Bigelow's instant classic The Hurt Locker opening in the long, dense shadow of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Skeptics about the latter might argue that the films have different audiences, with Locker's cerebral thrills playing skillfully against Michael Bay's megabudget bombast, but that's slightly missing the point. The Hurt Locker is a kind of win-win for a new era, a relatively cheap, mass-market actioner that can please viewers and studios alike. It's not quite enough to say, "More like this, please." You really do have to ask: "Why aren't there more like this?"

Locker opens with the epigram that war is a drug. Consider yourself warned as Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) appears on the scene in Iraq in 2004, chain-smoking in a volume cloud of heavy metal. As the new team leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad (three guesses as to what happened to the last leader), he's charged with defusing increasingly complex roadside bombs while Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) cover his back. It's the most they can do for much of their time with James, a quick-working cowboy for whom a smoke canister and a pistol are quickly established as the most efficient means of self-defense.

His methods could sit better with Sanborn and Eldridge, who have about a month left in their tours and aren't about to let James end it prematurely by getting them both killed. Sanborn nurses a particularly potent grudge, and his brief instinct to eliminate James -- to exploit one man's mortality while dodging his own -- epitomizes the transactions of violence throughout Hurt Locker. Iraq itself is like a stock exchange for the stuff, calculating the bloody costs of men, nations, generations, even spirits doing the business of war. Bigelow's camera jitters and jumps in the blowback, capturing an explosion almost in reverse with her bleached-out alien panorama tightening in to the fear, stress and exhaustion in the soldiers' eyes.

James does his most strenuous battle with himself; "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," he mutters, removing the 100 pounds of armor between him and a car bomb requiring attention. But by now it's not his recklessness that chafes at his comrades, but rather his gladiatorial resignation to fate. Not that he struts around Baghdad with a death wish, either; to the extent he can control his own destiny, he does, as evoked in an epic, almost motionless gun battle in the desert. James is simply too emotionally illiterate to live by the book, and Renner revels in the consequences, slumping, sweating and seething in the downtime afforded by doing his job better than just about anybody else in the country.

This may or may not explain his gravitation to a young Iraqi boy whose own survival becomes dangerously linked to James's own. The subplot winds a bit far afield in the third act (graphically so, for you squeamish types), with a payoff that doesn't match those earlier ones set up so effectively by Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. The trio's chemistry offers much greater rewards, their ambitions refracted off each other and through the hot, radiating light of Iraq. Geraghty blends a heady cocktail of naivete and nihilism, certain of his doom yet entranced by his new sergeant's fuck-all strategy. Mackie stands between them, fending off despair from both sides while counting down the days until his new life begins back home. Live or die, they're all casualties of a deep, perhaps incurable helplessness.

Of course it's politically loaded stuff, too, but Bigelow's in the thriller business, and therein rests Locker's greatest appeal. She draws you just close enough to James that his rush is your rush, his lulls are your lulls. But his ideas aren't rational enough to yield practical value to anyone. Just as you know this guy will never do anything else with his life, the filmmaker's propulsive, crisply edited, literally explosive vision reinforces his real purpose. You see a little bit of her in each man's moral adventure; her own reluctance to compromise fuels the real intensity between them and the culture they know they'll never save. That tense dignity is The Hurt Locker's stock in trade, a little miracle of summer you mustn't take for granted. And not a transforming toy to be found anywhere. Seriously -- more like this, please. RATING: 9


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