- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

“The Hurt Locker” is an action-packed thriller of the first order, the most entertaining movie to be made to date about the Iraq war. Director Kathryn Bigelow is more concerned with the fundamentals of moviemaking than the political concerns at the periphery of the conflict that have plagued other pictures in the genre: She and writer Mark Boal have created believable characters and placed them in unenviable, highly charged environments, driving the story forward with propulsive energy while simultaneously giving moviegoers three-dimensional characters to care about.

Focused on the exploits of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Squad, “The Hurt Locker” opens with an extended sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the picture: It’s a pulse-pounding set piece that has more than a whiff of danger and introduces the looming presence of sudden, merciless death. The tension is almost palpable as the team struggles to neutralize the improvised explosive device (IED) in front of them before something can go wrong.

As the movie progresses, we come to understand what drives Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is an adrenaline junkie, the kind of guy who only feels alive when he’s taking into his own hands his life (and, as a result, the lives of his teammates) while Sanborn and Eldridge are more interested in getting out of the country alive and in one piece.

Needless to say, these competing priorities create the conflict of the movie, heightening the tension that racks the already-perilous moments of action. Because of the uncertainty introduced in the movie’s opening moments, and the increasingly erratic behavior of the team’s leader, it’s never clear just what’s going to happen. By keeping the audience off-balance and ill at ease, Ms. Bigelow has fashioned an impressive thriller that never wanes in intensity or bores the audience.

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It bears watching whether this will be the first movie about the Iraq war to break through at the box office. In limited release, “The Hurt Locker” has performed extremely well on a per-screen basis, taking in $36,000 and $14,000 per screen in its first two weeks. Those numbers were good for the best average of any film in both weeks, topping big-budget wide releases such as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Public Enemies” and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.”

“The Hurt Locker” has several internal factors auguring well for its success: In addition to being a genuinely great war film and the best action-thriller of the year, this arguably is the most sympathetic portrayal of the volunteer troops fighting in Iraq yet committed to film, widening its potential audience to include those who have written off Hollywood as “anti-troop.” It also may have timing working in its favor: “The Hurt Locker” is arguably the first post-Iraq-war film.

Yes, American troops obviously remain active in two hot wars, constantly in harm’s way. But when was the last time Iraq dominated the headlines or the nightly news? As the level of violence in that country dropped off and the economy in this country became a more pressing concern, Americans’ attention drifted away from Iraq. How many people were even aware that U.S. troops handed off security of Iraq’s cities to homegrown armed forces at the end of June?

It’s no surprise that audiences would stay away from entertainment in which American soldiers are routinely killed and portrayed as either monsters or invalids when every evening’s news reports were filled with images of men and women dying and the continued fallout from Abu Ghraib. But now that the country has moved on, are we ready to take a fresh look at the subject on-screen?

Regardless of its box-office fate, “The Hurt Locker” should catapult Ms. Bigelow (“Point Break,” “Strange Days”) back into the upper tier of great action directors. Some smart studio head would be wise to let her go to work with a big check, carte blanche and final cut — and reap the subsequent rewards.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Hurt Locker”

RATING: R (war violence and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.thehurtlocker-movie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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