'Hurt' So Good
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Most action movies these days take a sledgehammer to our nerve-endings, assaulting our senses with humongous breakage, ear-splitting sound, slaughter real as paintball. When the buzz wears off, we often just feel numb ... and dumb. For antidote, head to Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," a super-smart actioner about men in war (script by journalist Mark Boal) that's arguably the best American film of the year.
Forget the heavy-metal mayhem of Transformers and Terminators. From its superheated get-go, "Locker" is all about emphatically human flesh under fire. The editing's nervy, tight and fast, the air heavy with tension as a little robotic "wagon" jerks its way along a dusty city street in Iraq to expose an IED in a pile of garbage. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal expert (Guy Pearce) so heavily armored up he looks like Robbie the Robot staggers down that mean street, cracking wise with his watching buddies every inch of the way. Unfriendlies on the roofline finger cell phones, video the action; could be one's about to trigger the bomb. Then we're behind the soldier's Plexiglas mask -- is that his heavy breathing or ours? -- walking our vulnerable software toward potential annihilation.
No way to lie back and enjoy the explosions of expendable toys and 'bots. "Locker" hits the nervous system like a cinematic speedball and never loses its grip. Our skin is in the game from the start, hooked on the exquisite pain/pleasure of death's feather on the nerve.
Newly assigned IED ace William James (Jeremy Renner, superb) hits town like a hotshot gunfighter, drawing every eye as he swaggers toward his rendezvous with some impossibly complicated device for blowing up men. He's a performance artist, showing off his skill and fearlessness as though writing his "Kilroy was here" in Iraq's yellow dust. Every challenge juices his sense of self; teasing out interlaced red-and-blue-wires to find the killer cord visibly turns him on. His teammates (Anthony Mackie, excellent, and Brian Geraghty, adequate), whose tours are nearly up, alternate between wanting to off the cowboy who's risking their lives along with his own and getting seduced by James' bright-burning charisma.
Unprepossessing in appearance, Renner's an actor who, especially in extremis, projects supercharged intelligence and physicality. He's close kin to ultra-cool Willem Dafoe in "Loveless," Bigelow's very first film. This director's protagonists are always risk-seekers, glam outsiders who hanker after the kind of adrenalin-ride that punches life into top gear. Motorcycle gang ("Loveless"), vampires ("Near Dark"), bank-robbing surfers ("Point Break") -- they're all on the run from low blood pressure, life gone stale. In Bigelow's apocalyptic "Strange Days," millennial folk got high by jacking into "playbacks" of other people's peak experiences -- even rape and death.
Unlike most contemporary action directors, Bigelow visualizes what's on screen with clarity, coherence and, frequently, a terrible beauty. (Sam Peckinpah would love the slo-mo waves of destruction that flow outward from an exploding IED.) Cutting for logic and impact, moving the camera as one might write a complex, eloquent sentence, composing and coloring the frame like the painter she once was, Bigelow makes "Locker" an exhilarating expression of her own idiosyncratic style and disciplined vision. An authentic filmmaker, she's the antithesis of self-indulgent hacks like Tony Scott ("The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") and Michael Bay ("Transformers").
In one well-nigh-unbearable set piece, Bigelow follows James up to and into the rusted carcass of a car concealing an IED. Metal ticks in the heavy heat as James doggedly searches for the source of the wires that will ignite a trunk full of explosives, the camera cutting faster and faster from car to nervous teammates to impassive Arabs and back again to James. Then, fracturing the silence, the thwump! thwump! thwump! of what surely must be bullets. Reconstitute yourself: it's just a broken wiper blade come to momentary life.
The first shot in Bigelow's cult classic "Near Dark" is a screen-spanning arm, a mosquito poised in close-up to draw blood. It's a visceral image, spotlighting the sensuality of skin, the insect's vampiric appetite. In "Locker," as James tries to defuse that bomb, we focus close-up on his muscular arms, flexing as he works. Contrasting corded veins with the IED's lethal plastic lines, Bigelow emphasizes the beauty and awful vulnerability of his flesh. Perhaps, with Hitchcockian perversity, she's also hinting that our hungry eyes feed on just such vulnerability and potential violence every time we take in an action movie. (At different points in "Locker," two recognizable stars go down with shocking suddenness, taken out as though they were expendable extras. A kick in the gut, this deliberate violation of movie-star invulnerability recalls Hitchcock's untimely murder of "Psycho's" Janet Leigh. Everyone in "The Hurt Locker" owes God a death.)
Bigelow's got a rare knack for portraying nearly mystical masculine bonding, welcome relief from the wimpy bromances Hollywood's currently hooked on. In one dreamlike firefight, James and his ambivalent partner (Mackie) fuse into a single killing machine, their senses wholly attuned to each other and their distant targets, barely recognizable as men until a painterly spray of scarlet signals a hit. It's an eerie interactive war-game that seems to go on forever, the motionless players absorbed in something like Tantric sex, a rapturous merging, stillness stretched to the breaking point.
Afterwards, that charged stillness finds release in the warriors' body-to-body roughhousing, drunken-verging-on-lethal fun. Such appreciation of ecstatic action as source of masculine identity and camaraderie is heady stuff -- especially in the wake of so many comic book movies in which superheroes wear flashy costumes as second skins to keep them safe from both sexuality and death.
"The Hurt Locker's" battleground is Iraq, but this brand of existential war could play out anywhere. The fatal allure of living on the edge makes men like James unfit for peacetime, for mundane experience. Can he test his mettle in a supermarket? Can wife and child provide the live-wire connection that sustains him? Keeping company with Howard Hawks' and Ernest Hemingway's danger-junkies, Bigelow's antihero is nobody and nowhere without access to self-defining risk. You'll find him cruising the badlands -- where outlaws on speed court death.