Full, Unexploded 1,700 word Version

This film begins with a robot’s tracks rolling over the rubble of an urban battlefield, very much as The Terminator did back in 1984. Given that Kathryn Bigelow was married to James Cameron once upon a time, you might be forgiven for thinking that this, her latest film, was going in a similar direction … but you could hardly be more wrong.

Here, the urban battlefield is not in some non-specific place in some non-specific future, it’s in Baghdad, during the recent unpleasantness there and the robot is a remote bomb disposal unit.

Those who are familiar with Bigelow’s previous films, such as Near Dark (1987), Strange Days (1995) and particularly Point Break (1991) will know that she is fascinated with exploring the relationship between violence with masculinity. Well, there are few places where you can study that more closely than in a theatre of war. And uniquely among the armed forces – the bomb disposal specialists are the guys who walk towards bombs.

The bomb-proof body-armour they wear when doing this is one part medieval armour to two parts deep-sea diving suit … and whenever they put it on, they walk away from the world of relative safety, of support, of some sort of sanity, into a mad, upside-down world where they are all alone … just them and their bomb. Or bombs.

As in Memphis Belle (1990) and Platoon (1986), films about two very different wars, we feel the pressure mount as the end of Bravo Company’s tour of duty approaches … no one says it, but everyone is thinking: “How many more times can we put ourselves in harm’s way … before it’s our turn to not come back?”

Well, that’s a gamble new kid on the Baghdad block, Will James (Jeremy Renner), seems determined to take. When he puts on the armour, he’s an adrenaline-junkie, prone to taking liberties with his own life and his two colleagues’ without hesitation. The other two (played with minimalist restrain by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) see his macho posturing for what it is … unnecessary and dangerous. When he is told that his responsibility is to stay safe, he shrugs, smiles and dismisses the idea with a casual “It’s combat, buddy”.

The several bomb-disposal set-pieces are nerve-shredding in their intensity. Watching the lone man, in his armour, walking alone down the middle of a deserted, rubble-strewn street puts one in mind of the recent swathe of end-of-the-world and zombie movies the post-9/11 hysteria has given rise to. Indeed, when he finds himself surrounded by mines, he pulls on the cord that connects them, and they rise up out of the dirt like zombies … but such similarities are merely perceptual and peripheral. This film may be a comment on the hysteria of mainstream cinema, but it’s not a contribution to it.

What makes this film even more disturbing is the knowledge that scriptwriter Mark Boal based it on his experiences as a journalist embedded with a unit of bomb technicians. So the man knows of whence he writes.

When Will is faced with a car full of mines, his first thought is to divest himself of his armour because, with that much explosive, it’ll make no difference. Freed from its restrictions, he doggedly traces the wires through the nooks and crannies of the burnt-out car, determined to defuse the bombs, even as the soldiers around him are becoming ever more panicky, feeling besieged by the onlookers on every rooftop. Yet, such is the skill of Bigelow and Boal, such is their determination to present the truth of the war in all its complicated moral greyness, this scene seems more reckless than heroic.

James is the maverick, the rebel, exactly the sort of character that typically makes for the most engaging Hollywood protagonists, but here he is seen from the perspective of his colleagues and, to their mind, his death wish is simply going to get them killed too. The only back-story we get from him is when the others are looking through the box of mementoes he has, bits of different bombs he has defused, which he describes as a box is full of things that nearly killed him. Significantly, his wedding ring is in there also.

Throughout the film there are deftly-handled references to several other war films, the afore-mentioned Platoon for one, Full Metal Jacket (1987) for another and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now (1979), but these aren’t just post-modern jokes there for the sake of it, they reflect the reality of the lives of these soldiers … it stands to reason that they will see the war they are fighting in relation to the movies they grew up watching and the first-person-shooters they grew up playing.

Back in the safety of The Green Zone, they play Gears of War (which is just the latest iteration of the ideas Bigelow’s ex-husband first had when working on Aliens in 1986). Why do they play this? Well, because this is a controllable sort of war, one where you know who the enemy is, who your friends are and you have a clear objective in mind. It’s nothing like the war they fight on a daily basis, it’s a fantasy!

It is here that Specialist Eldridge is gripped by survivor guilt, which gets keener the nearer he gets to going home. His doctor helpfully counsels him that war is a once in a lifetime experience which “could be fun!” He, unlike Boal and Bigelow, clearly hasn’t understood the difference between Gears of War and the real thing.

Cameo performances from Guy Pearce, as the disposal specialist who demonstrates to us just how dangerous the job is, David Morse as the officer who has clearly watched Apocalypse Now too often and desperately wants to be Colonel Kilgore and Ralph Fiennes, in an extraordinary turn as a mercenary we meet in the middle of the desert, are all so well drawn and bring with them so much texture, they add to the feeling that what we are seeing just one small story in a much larger on-going narrative.

The film succeeds in avoiding the problem I had with Black Hawk Down (20001) by concentrating on a small crew. So there’s only three cloned troopers wearing identical hair and camouflage to tell apart, and one of those is black. Makes it a lot easier to identify with a character when you can actually pick them out of a crowd.

Finally, the three specialists come together as a unit during an extraordinary sequence when they find themselves pinned down by snipers and have to fight back using bullets which are, symbolically, already stained with blood.

This film overflows with extraordinary moments, there’s not just the edge-of-the-seat defusings, there’s also the ambush, there’s Will, fully clothed, standing in a shower which quickly fills up with blood, there’s haunting footage of him out of uniform, running through the neon-lit late-night streets which, for some peculiar reason, reminded me of Taxi Driver (1975).

Jarhead (2005) made the burning Kuwaiti oil-fields look like something out of a Biblical dark fantasy, not that it had to try hard, because they did look like Hell on Earth … here, the site of a night-time bus explosion, rubble lit by burning trees, is a similarly Biblical, similarly diabolical vision … accompanied by the unearthly wailing of women. All of which reminded me of the No Lung Bridge sequence from Apocalypse Now, the moment when sanity finally and completely transformed into insanity … when Willard and his crew stepped off the map. Here Will and his team take it upon themselves to leave the protection of their comrades and plunge into the dark labyrinth of streets and alleys that the bombers, “The Haj”, call home.

Whilst the demilitarised area where some vestige of normalacy exists, might be called The Green Zone, the war is clearly being fought in a perpetual Grey Zone … where nothing quite makes sense and one’s moral compass just goes round and round.

The main performance by Jeremy Renner is a study in caged rage. As impactful as Colin Farrell’s debut in the thematically-similar Tigerland (2000), I hope this does for Renner’s career what that did for Farrell’s, because he deserves it. Thanks to his fiercely intense eyes, he manages to communicate so much intense emotion while saying nothing. The moment when he finally breaks is when he finds the corpse of a child, with a booby-trap surgically implanted inside it. This reminds him of his own son, the one he abandoned to go off and get shot at and, because of this, it’s just one horror too many.

The dialogue is sparse, the narrative fragmentary, yet the performances are humane enough that we come to care for these guys in a very deep and real sense. We’re glad they’re out there, instead of us. The film never shrinks away from the contradictions in their characters, and doesn’t proffer pat, psycho-babble explanations for their behaviour. These guys don’t communicate in an open, healthy way. They deal with their emotions by staging a really-quite-vicious gut-punching contest with each-other instead. Like all real people, they’re complex and contradictory. Sometimes we understand them, sometimes we don’t, and the mystifying decision that James makes at the end of the movie is both horrifying and, sadly inevitable.

Only in the film’s closing moments, do we fully understand the quotation we see at the beginning.

The Hurt Locker has spent much of this year walking its way around the world’s festivals, hoovering up accolades as it goes, and justifiably so. That’s the intelligent way to market a film, especially on as critic-friendly as this one, because it allows you to build up that word of mouth gradually that ensures this film will be the sleeper hit it richly deserves to be.

This is this year’s The Wrestler … a film that comes out of nowhere and stands confident and proud in crowd of complacent, lazy films. In time, The Hurt Locker will be spoken of in the same breath as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and, for an analysis of the greyness of modern warfare, I can think of no greater achievement.


  1. I saw this movie a while ago, thought it was great. Typical of the "America Saves The World" genre, very entertaining. Nice review, well deserved.

  2. Thank-you, I appreciate the comment. I can see your point about American Imperialism, but I think, unlike the usual "Team America" type movies, this one talks about the effect trying to save the world has on the Americans who are actually doing it!