“The Hurt Locker” is an action movie, which, given that it’s also a movie about the Iraq War, is kind of a revelation. Enough Iraq War films have been made now to enforce the common belief that no one actually wants to watch Iraq War films because they’re “depressing.” Which they generally are. The war is depressing. The trauma faced by the troops is depressing, the ethical morass of our involvement is depressing, the cost, in dollars and, more importantly, in lives — depressing.
“The Hurt Locker” doesn’t sidestep these facts as much as it doesn’t engage them at all — it’s a movie about combat, about the lulls and lows and unexpected, wild highs of life in a war zone. It’s essentially apolitical, its concerns not about the larger picture but how the men on which it focuses live lives stretched tight as a wire, and about how one of them has grown to love that. It’s also, with no disrespect to the seriousness of its setting, just a kick-ass entertainment, peppered with set pieces that summon incredible suspense out of stillness, whether during the defusing of an IED on a cleared out city street or during a sniper battle out in the desert. No finger-wagging, no “Redacted”-style didacticism, just head-rushingly cinematic sequences showing off the extremely dangerous day-to-day of an army bomb squad stationed in Iraq. A bravura opening shows the unit’s tools of trade: a robot with a camera, an armored suit that won’t do a damn thing if the tech wearing it has to actually close enough to a bomb to defuse it, and guns to wave uneasily at the crowd watching from the surrounding buildings, one that might conceal whoever has ability to detonate the explosive. When a bomb does goes off, the impact’s broken into tremory shots of dust rising off the ground, debris mushrooming into the air and blood spraying against the inside of a helmet.
The most familiar faces in the film — Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce — show up and depart in unexpected places. The main roles belong to a pair of up-and-comers who’ve been rattling around the indie world for a while now, Anthony Mackie, of “Half Nelson” and “She Hate Me,” and Jeremy Renner, of “28 Weeks Later” and “North Country.” Mackie’s the straight-laced Sergeant Sanborn and Renner is James, the bomb tech and what one colonel admiring deems a “wild man,” both very skilled and very reckless with his work. Their relationship’s your basic odd-couple-coming-to-terms, and James, corn-fed and cocky, is in many ways your basic blockbuster hero. But the film’s set in something closer to the real world, where that’s not such a good thing — that swagger and that thrill-seeking make James more than a little fucked-up, someone who puts the lives of those around him in danger even as he demonstrates how great he is at what he does, how much better he is under pressure.
Kathryn Bigelow’s always shown a gift for injecting intelligence into big, pop productions, or maybe just knowing that aiming wider doesn’t require dumbing down. Or maybe that’s not even the point — “Point Break” could by no sane person be described as “smart,” but it’s more than earned its following with its full-born commitment to giddy, physics defying stunts and unwinking man-angst. The sluggish parts of “The Hurt Locker” — a storyline involving an particularly underdeveloped psychiatrist, a nighttime solo attempt at revenge — feel extraneous because, well, they are, adding nothing of worth to the characters or narrative, but also because they represent time away from the singular adrenaline-heightened sharpness of the bomb scenes. For James, everything between those peaks is colorless and dull, his life ideally one dally with mortality after another, and the film, as admirable as it is, feels like it should be true to that too.
“The Hurt Locker” will be in theaters June 26.