The Hurt Locker (DVD)

Making a war film is always a dangerous game, especially when it’s still raging on. Embellish or present the politics inconsistently and entire nations will be angered at their misrepresentation. The Hurt Locker throws the politics of the Iraq War out of the window, instead choosing to focus on a small band of soldiers on patrol in Baghdad. Their primary duty is to defuse the numerous Improvised Explosive Devices that pop up in the city’s streets with frightening regularity.

Jeremy Renner takes the lead as the butch Staff Sergeant James, whose responsibility it is to snip the wires on the IEDs. But these bombs aren’t elaborate haystacks of multi-coloured wires requiring cutting in a precise order; they can be defused with a simple pair of scissors. Instead, the danger comes from the insurgents lurking in the urban jungle of Baghdad. This is where James’ cohorts come in: the straight-and-true, Sergeant Sanborn, and the nervous rookie, Specialist Eldridge. Their jobs are to scope out the surrounding buildings looking for anyone fishy, who might detonate the bomb as James gets to work. But in a war-ravaged country where the slightest incident breaks the monotony of staying in your home, a bomb defusal operation attracts onlookers in their droves, and the insurgents are aware of this using the spectators to blend in.

This is where The Hurt Locker excels. The tension that director Kathryn Bigelow wracks up is often unbearable. Disarming the bombs is a team effort and when your team is thrown into enemy territory, consisting of a brash, impetuous defusal expert and a rookie soldier who constantly needs spoon-feeding, living to see the end of the day rarely seems a certainty.

The rules of Hollywood do not apply here: soldiers leaping in slow-motion while the background erupts into flames are out. Shock waves alone can kill a fully armoured bomb disposal expert, and when you’ve got to cover a 200-metre blast radius in an emergency, the last thing you want to be wearing is a cumbersome astronaut suit. Battling such an unrelenting enemy disguised by its city seems totally one-sided.

There are moments of relief when the wires are chopped, but they last only momentarily. Then it’s back to life back at Camp Victory, which involves watching crappy pirate DVDs, longing for loved ones and dwelling on the deaths of fallen comrades. Or, it involves games of punching each other in the stomach to pass the time. And then it’s back out on patrol the next morning: defusing more bombs, battling snipers in the Iraqi wilderness ­– in possibly the tensest scene ever committed to film – and generally trying to stay alive.

 “War is a drug”, according to the film’s opening lines of text. This is reinforced with the film’s conclusion, but on the evidence of what comes in between this is misleading. The Hurt Locker is an astonishing, nerve-wracking and eye-opening portrayal of the futility that so many soldiers endure with every patrol, month after month. “Every day is life or death,” comments one of the soldiers. He’s right. On the basis of The Hurt Locker, war is a drug for mentalists only. People who value their sanity need not apply.

EXTRAS ** A behind-the-scenes featurette, and interviews with the cast and crew.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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