During the months following the second invasion of Iraq, American bomb squads are put to the test with daily dangers; take the story of Bravo Company, whose bomb disposal unit is led by Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) who were recently called out to a suspicious-looking device in a Bagdad patch of wasteground. Thompson was the one who had to don the special suit to go out and examine the site when their remote controlled robot failed to carry out its mission, but once he drew close enough one of the locals set off a huge explosion which killed him in spite of his protection. The unit now needs a new sergeant: step forward William James (Jeremy Renner)...
Ever since the second Iraqi war began, Hollywood have been trying to capture what it is like to be there in a film, much to the resistance of most of the public; it's as if they get enough of this on the news and don't wish to visit their cinemas for fictionalised versions of it. This might be why The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow's first film in over five years, was sold as an action movie, and those who went to see it were satisfied that they were not being lectured at, which is the feeling you get from far too many efforts that took on the conflict. Mind you, it didn't exactly set the box office alight wherever it played, suggesting that the formula for this type of thing had yet to be perfected.
As an action movie, this certainly plays out with some degree of effectiveness and there is considerable tension developed when Bigelow sets about providing the setpieces with her customary sure hand. Always more comfortable with the men than the women, it's only natural that she should tackle the subject of the Army, as here there is hardly a female face to be seen throughout the whole two hours or so. Courtesy of Mark Boal's script, there's a keen sense of everyone in the film, both behind the camera and in front of it, getting the mental state of being in combat situations just right, even if the details begin to look unconvincing from the opening sequence, with characters putting themselves in far more peril than you'd think was necessary.
No one more than Sergeant James, who takes such a casual attitude to his possibly impending demise that it's a miracle that he's survived so long. He's set up as our maverick hero, making this too close to the Top Gun of Iraq war movies, except that here the war is genuine and not a skirmish made up for recruiting purposes. Renner is very impressive as the soldier who hasn't joined up to put the world to rights, but instead craves the excitement of placing himself in life-threatening circumstances to justify his existence - sure, he has a family back home, but the love of a good woman (Evangeline Lilly, one of four extended cameos in the film) is not enough for his thirst for danger.
When he does become emotionally engaged, the film heads straight for the melodramatic, as when James gets to know an Iraqi boy who turns out to be part of a ploy to blow up more American soldiers, at great cost to him personally. The depiction of the locals does well for building up the paranoia of being surrounded by potential bombers, or at the very least people who would rather you were not there at all, but for all that it begins to grate as every one of the Iraqis is either a deep irritation at one end of the scale or an outright psychopathic murderer at the other end. The impression this leaves is that none of them are worth saving, so if you're looking for anti-war sentiments then you may be let down as James is strictly pro-war, not for any political reasons but for personal ones, which makes him an interesting character but perhaps ill-judged to be placed in such controversial hostilities. There's nothing terribly wrong with The Hurt Locker, it's simply not very helpful. Music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, and tackled the 1967 riots of Detroit. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.