By Chase Kahn
Much acclaim has been bestowed upon Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, all of it worthy and entirely necessary. It's part nail-biting suspense thriller and part soldiers-in-distress action film, but it's mostly a character study regarding Sgt. William James, the leader of an elite bomb squad unit, and his unique, indescribable and unquenchable thirst for the thrill.
Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break), working on a script by former Iraq War newsman Mark Boal on his experiences overseas, have created a visceral, testoterone-fueled environment with calculated, fully realized characters in an episodically paced action-thriller, dense and unforgettable.
Jeremy Renner (William James) plays the lead of the three-man unit with exacting recklessness and tangible schizo-insanity. Even though he ocassionally compromises his squadmates and frequently disobeys orders, he's a sympathetic character and truly cares about his job, which he is by the way, incredibly qualified for. His uncontrollable lust and addiction to the danger of the job and it's quick fix is played out as no different than any common-place addiction to alcohol or drugs. Friends get hurt in the process, family becomes second-place -- valuable only in desperation -- and the addict in question is never at rest until the urge is fulfilled.
Renner (The Assassination of Jesse James, 28 Weeks Later) turns in a star-making performance. Flawed, likeable, but entirely unrelatable for most, he plays the kind of person that viewers simply can't understand yet makes him 100% convincing and wholly legitimate. Anthony Mackie plays Sgt. J.T. Sandborn, James' most aggressively combatant squad member who adamantly opposes his techniques and disobedience, yet comes to appreciate and admire his skills in time. Mackie has two or three indelible moments of his own.
Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd film The Hurt Locker entirely with handheld cameras, an intelligent if foreseeable move. As a result, the film is sun-baked, obtrusive and transportive. We feel the weight and the heat on James' body from his massive, intimidating bomb-removal suit. This urgency keeps the film in touch, and away from being inappropriately glossy or inauthentic.
There's a scene with Sgt. William James back at home in which he's facing a wide-angled view of a threatening cereal aisle. It's a stark, albeit obvious, juxtaposition of what truly frightens someone who gets off on fear. This is a deep and incisive study of character, men at work -- dangerous work -- and what makes one of them tick to be so damn unrully good at it. It's a new addition to the classic pantheon of great American war films -- free of political disdain and otherwise harmful digressions -- the first work of an art from the Iraq War.