Over the course of the Iraq War, reports of people killed and maimed by the crude roadside bombs known as IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) became commonplace. And yet the people who save lives by defusing such bombs remained largely untrumpeted. Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-jangling thriller The Hurt Locker seeks to redress the balance, but it wouldn’t be accurate to describe the film as merely a paean to American courage and derring-do. Granted, the members of the Army bomb squad are a courageous lot, and Bigelow and journalist screenwriter Mark Boal (who was embedded with a unit in 2004) treat them with proper reverence. Yet there’s a kind of madness that comes with the job, where the hair-raising, red-wire/blue-wire stresses of day-to-day life can make some soldiers punch-drunk on adrenaline.
With his brash, devil-may-care cockiness and good-ol’-boy swagger, Jeremy Renner recalls Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Both men have seen and survived so much that they project a dangerous aura of invincibility. Called in to take over for the fallen leader of a three-person bomb squad, Renner is precisely the wrong replacement: With the other two men, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, still reeling over their loss, Renner drags them ever more recklessly into sticky situations on the streets of Baghdad. Though Renner’s skills are as undeniable as his extraordinary resolve, Mackie in particular takes exception to his eccentric tactics and abandonment of protocol. At the same time, Mackie recognizes that they both have a job to do.
For the first hour or more, The Hurt Locker boldly forsakes any conventional narrative hook beyond the ongoing tensions between these men and the terrifying grind of defusing bombs day after day. Since the infamous bar sequence in 1987’s Near Dark, Bigelow has always thrived on graphic intensity, and in the early going especially, she suggests the psychological toll on Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty one aggravating mission at a time. It’s a shame she and Boal felt the need to introduce a conventional, borderline-sentimental subplot to underline Renner’s heroism, but even then, he’s a complicated figure, and “heroic” is only one of many not-all-flattering words that might describe him. He’s a creature of war, forever doomed to its unnatural habitat.