Iraq. Forced to play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse in the chaos of war, an elite Army bomb squad unit must come together in a city where everyone is a potential enemy and every object could be a deadly bomb.
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Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break) is a hell of a filmmaker. In The Hurt Locker, she puts us not only on the ground but into the psychology of what takes us to war, what keeps us there, and what may just get us killed.
Staff Sergeant Will James joins a US Army bomb squad in Iraq after his predecessor meets an untimely and messy end. He's a total hothead; a maverick who does what he wants when he wants and ignores the common sense that stops others from taking the kind of risks he does.
It's a trait that seems built into James's personality, and Bigelow makes us ask the question -- does he survive despite his recklessness in situation after desperate situation, or because of it?
Bigelow hasn't done a feature since 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, a well-received but hardly blockbuster hit, except for 2007's barely noticed "Mission Zero." Here, she's assembled a cast of relative unknowns to really make us feel we're intimately involved with army "everymen" instead of stars playing normal grunts.
The stars that do appear in The Hurt Locker include Ralph Fiennes, who starred in Bigelow's tripped 1995 sci-fi thriller "Strange Days." Guy Pearce ("Memento") gets things rolling, literally with a bang, and fine character actor David Morse is all but unrecognizable as a Colonel who may be praising James, or giving him a severe dressing-down.
Bigelow keeps the camera at points at a nearly claustrophobic nearness that drowns you in the environment: the dirt, the heat, the fear. It takes a pretty intense film to scare me, and I was on the edge of my seat often, when not just squirming in it. She knows her weaponry as well, and I think the most critical of viewers would have little to complain about.
There are moments when The Hurt Locker feels almost like a documentary, or docu-drama. Bigelow is a magician in capturing small, transporting moments: a crippled cat on the streets, the faces of Iraqis as they regard the armed force that occupies their country -- where is right and wrong in such a morass of motivations and old grievances?
This is also one of the most humanizing war films I've ever seen, and the best I've seen yet on the Iraq conflict. By using unfamiliar faces and taking us right to ground level, we are as much a part of Bravo company's tour as the soldiers involved. We second-guess, we anticipate, we make mistakes.
And that's what war really is all about, not glory and victory. A highly recommended, masterful film.