There's an underlying theme both in front of and behind the camera in the explosive war thriller The Hurt Locker -- and that is craft. The story follows bomb squad Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) as he comes to terms with the fact that nothing much else matters in his life other than being the best at what he can do -- which is strap on a 100-lb. suit in 110+ degree heat and walk into a dangerous situation that he knows he can handle. With 873 successful bomb diffusions under his belt, James doesn't blink, he just does. The same goes for director Kathryn Bigelow, who has already proven herself capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with the big boys of action, but hits yet another confident stride with this exercise in high-pressure filmmaking. The reason to see the engrossing Hurt Locker isn't so much to soak in the politics of war or be overwhelmed by an overblown Hollywood budget, but to be taken on a journey of one breathless scene of tension after another. On the way, the heart of the picture makes itself apparent, but until then, this is an exemplary display of craft that's sure to take your breath away.
The year is 2004, and the picture begins with a disastrous bomb-disarmament scene, laying the groundwork for just how dangerous a locale Baghdad really is for these troops. As if disarming bombs weren't enough, the soldiers have to keep on constant alert for insurgents who could be anyone around them. For this, the Army needs a three-man squad -- the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) crew -- a small force consisting of a point person and two others supplying lookout for trouble that can come from all sides. Such is the case for Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who after losing their previous leader, are assigned to work under Staff Sgt. James (Renner), a maverick soldier whose efficient ways don't always end up on the right side of protocol. As the men's tour winds down, the pressure gets higher and higher for the crew, with one dangerous day leading to the next. Nerves are shot; people live and die at the switch of a button or the pull of a trigger -- thus it goes when you live in "the hurt locker."
Some have labeled The Hurt Locker an action film, but that's a bit deceiving. What it lacks in traditional combat scenes, it more than makes up for in nail-biting tension. With each and every set piece, Bigelow amps up the pressure in precise ways that keep the audience nailed to their seats, as if they are right there in the midst of the war zone. The absence of a score in key scenes adds to the realism, as does the handheld cinematography, complete with the same kind of slight shake and quick zooms used to best effect within documentary filmmaking. And when the picture isn't ramping up your heart rate, it switches gears and becomes an intimate character study in what war does to humankind. Whether it's facing deadly obstacles that you live to overcome or being saddled with a crew member whose adrenaline addiction has put you directly in the line of fire, the hardships of war don't leave you with a lot of easy ways to return to normality in its aftermath. Though apolitical in much of its intentions, the film does nail home that fact -- which might end up being one of the strongest wartime messages of all. Not bad for such a meager little (by today's standards) action film. Not bad at all.