… strong material, weak film …

In a way everyone should see The Hurt Locker:  it’s not a good film but it makes clear what it’s like for our soldiers in Iraq to carry out their duties while relentlessly under the eyes of armed enemy insurgents out to kill them.

The movie does have suspense — these are, after all, our boys moving into treacherous, hostile situations time and time again, acting heroically and escaping by the skin of their teeth.  One thing’s for sure:  when traveling on a desolate road in this country, don’t get a flat tire.

No soldiers place themselves more in danger than the three-person Bravo squad whose task is to locate and disarm — locate the detonater and cut the live wires — of car bombs, roadside bombs, and bombs which, if not padlocked to their chests, are surgically implanted into the guts of suicide bombers.  Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the best bomb disarmer and biggest risk taker of them all, and even his tough squad members, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Jackie) and the young Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are angered because he thrusts them into danger unnecessarily, risking not just his life but theirs, bypassing military protocol in his passion for disarming bombs — he’s done over 800 of them.

“Do you know why I do this?” James asks Sanborn (who looks like Ralph Lauren’s famous Black male model, and has a similar range of emotional expression).  Sanborn doesn’t, and unfortunately the audience hasn’t a clue either.  We watch him take his irresponsible risks but he’s so thinly characterized we don’t feel his genuine drive, though we do feel some admiration for his ability.  That in itself might have been developed as a reason:  Sanborn describes hm as “a trailer park red-neck” so finding something he can do well could have helped explain James’ passion and determination to keep doing it (he smiles with happy anticipation when, leaving behind a beautiful wife and adorable child who looks just like him, he lands in Iraq for another tour of disarming bombs) but there’s no follow-through on that idea.

Often things are said and done that one just doesn’t believe.  An army psychiatrist portrayed as an ectomorphic ivy league nerd-weakling joins on a bomb-search mission because he’s bored around his office — I don’t think so.  Why doesn’t James speak when he calls his wife and son from Iraq on his cell phone?  Why did Sanborn leave his Intelligence unit to volunteer for the bomb squad?  Why doesn’t Sanborn want a child?  Why doesn’t the army commander recognize a renegade when he sees one? 

“War is a drug” is the movie’s answer to James compulsion but we never feel that wild high, though we’re told of it, so James just seems, well, odd.  Stephen Crane got the intoxication of battle right in his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage — this film team doesn’t.  Leaving the theater, some people thought the problem was poor acting.  I thought it was more a problem with the scripting — too many “weighty” thoughts tossed in but never picked up by the plot — like unused props on a stage — and none of the characters have any back story that helps us understand them.