The Hurt Locker (2009)

I’ve been kicking myself for about six months for not seeing The Hurt Locker in theaters when I had the chance. Instead, I went and saw 500 Days of Summer. I wondered if I had made the right choice. I loved 500 Days of Summer, but the overwhelming praise of The Hurt Locker made me think I might have missed out on possibly the best theatrical experience of 2009. Further compounding this was my surprise love of director Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break only a couple of months later.

So here I am in 2010 forced to experience one of 2009’s most lauded film on a HDTV in a living room with a modest surround sound system. And in some ways I can’t help but think that might be the reason why I didn’t love this film. There’s something about the presentation, the sound design and the pacing that just seems to demand a large screen and a packed audience. But then I stepped back a bit, thought about it for a minute, and wondered if it was bigger, louder and more intense would I love The Hurt Locker? My answer was no.

The reason why is simple: I don’t have any investment in anything that happens in any single second of this entire film. And the reason why is because the protagonist doesn’t care and neither do I. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) may be this crazy demolitions disarmer in modern day Iraq with all the gung-ho and madness of Riggs from Lethal Weapons but I don’t like him. He’s a selfish little punk who puts his comrade’s lives at risk so he can get a rush.

But for someone seeking a high he’s flippant about it. As he breaks radio contact and swiftly cuts cords without a second though I’m left to wonder for a man whose in love with the rush he sure seems to not savor it. He seems more like an apathetic man than a man hungering for a high. As he lays back and coolly smokes cigarettes between missions you wonder if he cares about anything.

But maybe he does. Throughout the film he bonds with a young Iraqi kid who sells him bootlegged DVDs and plays soccer. The film seems to suggest there’s a softer side to this man who is so careless on the job, especially when everyone else in the army ignores the local population. It’s an interesting subplot but the conclusion is rather disappointing and seems to go back on the entire idea behind the relationship.

This is just one among many examples that demonstrates that there is dissonance between the protagonist’s character development and the action of film. While the action wants to be suspenseful, gritty and loud it’s stuck hanging our emotional hook on a character that is loose and apathetic. The action within itself is technically interesting and usually set up in compelling ways but I never felt that hook of engagement that carries you through a great action film.

And let there be no qualms, this is an action film. Despite its war setting and tales of soldiers its apolitical nature combined with the fact there’s next to no context to the overall war makes it a straight up action flick. In that regards it works on the providing explosions and creating cool set-pieces. To be honest the bomb sequences did little for me, but the scene in the alley and the sniper duel had me leaning on the edge of my seat. Those scenes felt far less cluttered and more elegant in their presentation of simple buildups of suspense instead of the constant intercutting that seeped into the bomb sequences.

All this left me wondering about the insane hype. Somehow I felt cheated. I expected some rock your socks of sequences but found only a couple amidst a lot of loud, obvious and bombastic sequences. Technically, it works, but the suspense rarely pulled me in. And the ending sealed the deal. Nothing more than a mild curiosity that had little interesting to say about war, violence or this thing we call the human condition. Silly me, here I go trying to think about an action film again. Maybe I should take Kubrick’s advice and just learn to love the bomb.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

The Hurt Locker [Blu-ray]
The Hurt Locker [DVD]