The Hurt Locker Review

The Hurt Locker begins with a sequence where every safety practice and careful piece of protocol is seemingly followed while attempting to disarm a bomb on the streets of Iraq. American Army soldiers are shown as disciplined and patient. Only the filmmaking, which asks the audience to absorb this sense of immediacy at the start and even forgoes the use of an opening title screen, warns of the impending disaster. The camera seems nervous and knowing. These feelings soon seep into the viewer. The expected more or less happens, though maybe unexpectedly, but it's the last time in the film where any sense of predictability or commitment to order occurs either in Mark Boal's screenplay or Kathryn Bigelow's direction. Chaos follows. Every remaining moment is laced with an intensity virtually unseen in such a sustainable and devastating way on film. Going by the book gets replaced by getting it done. The philosophy practiced by Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) isn't even softly endorsed by the film. It's more presented as the idea of war as a massive trap you can never escape safely. There's death or, if you're molded just right, there's ballsy success and survival which can never be transitioned away from properly.

What makes The Hurt Locker so exceptional is its full recognition of James as a tortured antihero who knows deep inside himself how unhinged he is but nonetheless accepts, even embraces, that insanity. And he does this for selfish reasons rather than any sense of patriotism or societal obligation. The insistence of war as a playland best suited to the functional crazies is unfortunately not the boldest of movie ideas, as it's been offered by everyone from Sam Fuller to Coppola and Kubrick, but this still feels upsetting and difficult to come to terms with in ways we simply haven't seen for a very long time. There just hasn't been a movie so effective in reminding us of how flawed the act of war is while that very war is still being fought in many years, certainly not in my lifetime. It's not that The Hurt Locker has an ideological slant on the necessity or rightness of the war. (The film is refreshingly apolitical.) If there's a target it's instead the level of human sacrifice, and not just in death.

There are only three main characters, Renner's James, Anthony Mackie as Sgt. Sanborn, and Spc. Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty, and Boal doesn't use a conventional strand of plot to join one scene to the next. The men are part of a group who are assigned to disarm the seemingly infinite number of bombs sitting around Baghdad, with James as the man in the suit responsible for cutting a lot of very dangerous wires. Peripheral characters, including three high-profile cameos by the likes of Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes, also weave through the film, but only the main three get even the slimmest of development. The prevailing message is still one of professionalism and that there's a job to be done. Each day is an opportunity to fall apart as much as it is to eke through purgatory. Look closer and you might notice that no one wants these soldiers there. Not only would most of them rather be anywhere else, but the Iraqi people they encounter, yell at, and shoot at are almost entirely unwelcoming. Everyone is presumed as an enemy and a threat.

The exception, and the key point of entry for both wholly compelling entertainment and that angry helplessness we take away from the best of art, is Renner's character. He's scared shitless but he enjoys it. On some level he needs to risk his life daily. He needs it like a drug. This is the most obvious point of the entire picture. Sgt. James is a madman of the variety usually anointed as heroes. He's not, it should be understood, a criminal type or someone so deranged as to be a threat to others as a civilian. Maladjusted, sure, but not a guy, as far as we can tell, who'd do damage to others. His insanity seems entirely internal. He's also, via Renner's performance, a strongly charismatic lead. That's a dangerous combination. The viewer is intrigued by him as a means of experiencing that same rush of rebellion and success on the highest of high wires. It's an enormous creation and Renner's embodiment of James stands up so well against the weight of cliched characters of films past. This is one of the great lead performances (and films, for that matter) of the decade.

Bigelow's direction is impressively exciting, of the sort that probably should have translated to much better box office, but also adept at showing the nuance and conflict that elevates the film far beyond being just an action or war movie. The latter type of film can do more harm than good regardless of which side of the fence it's on, but The Hurt Locker is balanced enough to shrug off any insinuated affiliation. The film, too, is composed with an abundance of little moments that resonate stronger because of how few preachy or manipulative distractions occur. Two separate shots of maimed cats moving across the Baghdad wreckage make clear that they don't belong in a place like this, that no one belongs in a place like this. Another moment, perhaps the most fearlessly and defiantly emotional in the film, shows James emerging with the dead body of a young child in his arms, covered in a blood-soaked white sheet. What the viewer knows in connection with this makes it mean more while watching and what we learn later puts it in an even different, though no less affecting, perspective. More of these run through the film, images and ideas quietly destructive instead of needing fake intestines on a battlefield to get our attention. The picture is better and more sincere as a result. It's certainly the best I've seen from this year (or last).

The Disc

This dual-layered Blu-ray disc is encoded for Region B machines. It presents the film in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. A layer of grain sits comfortably on the image, perhaps slightly heavy for some but I'll take it without complaint. Detail is reasonably crisp for the most part. An interior scene inside James's room looks quite dark and lacking in definition but this seems to be an intentional choice as the image at times also loses focus slightly. Night scenes that follow later in the picture exhibit a stronger contrast. The outdoor day sections that make up the majority of the film use a fittingly dull and sandy color palette that is reproduced well in the transfer. Overall, the high definition image is probably more good than great but, as this is my only experience with the film thus far, it nonetheless looked satisfactory.

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has a very sharp sound to it. Lots of bullets and explosions are offered up and they tend to come through quickly, neatly, and favoring the front channels rather than the rears. I didn't get the feeling of being emerged right in the center of things with tanks firing all around and shrapnel flying through, but that might not have been the intention. The result is reasonably full and affecting to my ears. Volume is a touch low maybe, but consistent and everything including dialogue is cleanly heard. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are optional, white in color.

A disappointing set of extras here. What's included seems best suited to those who haven't yet seen the film rather than fans intent on a purchase. A "Behind the Scenes" (12:31) featurette doesn't hide the fact that it's just an (admittedly well-done) EPK. Interviews, backslapping, and all of the usual promotional material designed more to drum up interest than enhance appreciation of the film are included. All of the principals are heard from on camera except for Ralph Fiennes. The "Interviews" (11:28) with actors in the film, including bits used in the EPK, are fleshed out a little in separate sit-downs with Anthony Mackie (2:09), Brian Geraghty (1:21), David Morse (1:58), Guy Pearce (3:49), and Jeremy Renner (2:11).

The press release indicates that "Backstage" (12:55), which isn't much more than random pieces of behind the scenes footage, is a Blu-ray exclusive, as is an extensive Photo Gallery.

Final Thoughts

Even with the heavy praise of critics and awards groups, The Hurt Locker lives up to it all and doesn't disappoint. It's a phenomenal film that's less about the current Iraq War than a character study centered around an awful situation. This Region B Blu-ray could be improved upon in the extras department but it looks and sounds well enough.

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