A blog about movies and filmmaking.

One of the most tense movies I’ve ever seen

In action on August 2, 2009 at 1:07 pm

I once watched THE NEGOTIATOR with some family and friends and about halfway through the movie, my friend was actually quaking from the amount of tension she had watching the movie. It’s something that I don’t know I’ve every experienced to that degree (usually it happens to me, when I have to confront someone, over something I don’t want to), but watching THE HURT LOCKER made me at least have an idea how my friend must have felt.

Kathryn Bigelow’s newest movie – following the footsteps of classic action/genre fare like POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS and NEAR DARK) – is about three Army personnel that are in a bomb-squad in Iraq. The main characters are Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is new to the team after an unfortunate event took the life of their former squad leader, in a short but great performance by Guy Pearce. That opening set-piece, by the way is astonishing in it’s style and force in exhibiting what happens when these bomb guys are not able to do what they’re meant to. A shot, of a bomb exploding, which in regular time would probably play out in seconds lasts a good minute or two; in slow motion, that is not cliched, but shows the ground slowly start to levitate, rocks rumbling and Guy Pearce running in the most awkward Mr. Goodwrench type suit ever created. And from there, we kick off this movie.

James comes in, after being introduced as a heavy-smoking, heavy metal listening show-off with a seeming death wish. On their first outing he pops a smoke grenade as a diversion so no one – including his fellow soldiers – can see what he’s doing; then he has a showdown in his tank-sized suit against a taxi that breaks through the road block. This shows us that James is a rule-breaker and as the opening quote of the movie states, might be addicted to war; and shows us that Sanborn is one to usually stick with the books and procedure.

They go through a couple of events of bomb-disarming. A car that is set on fire, with a trunk full of explosives, and an even gorier – yet not going to be spoiled here – bomb. There’s showing off and trying to prove who’s the person in charge of their group, and I have to say that with all the personality for these two characters – and by the amazing actors performing them – the standout role is Geraghty’s Eldridge, who is kind of the audience’s surrogate in this movie. He’s the young kid who was sent to Iraq, probably not expecting it to be as real as it is; and has a number of scenes talking to a base shrink – played by Christian Camargo, who might be familiar to fans of the Showtime series DEXTER – explaining how easy it is for people to die in the field here and how he’s afraid and yet excited a little by James’ cavalier approach to the work they do. We see his uncertainty in what to do in a number of circumstances as well as his stepping into the role of soldier to actually have to combat opponents and make, what seemed like, his first kill. Death is not glamorized in this movie; it is not “cool” and it is not exhilarating.

The other performers though are all top-notch. Jeremy Renner, who has been showing up in more and more stuff over the past few years is gearing up to become a larger star – and is kind of in the Gerard Butler camp of unorthodox looking guys who are becoming the new “hunky types” – in movies like 28 WEEKS LATER, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and headlining the recent television show THE UNUSUALS. He has a darkness, and still a likability to him, that will help him – and kept me from wanting to see something bad happen to him in THE HURT LOCKER.

Anthony Mackie, is also a standout, as the responsible and yet slightly jaded Sergeant that doesn’t like the new hot-shot that doesn’t seem to respect or care about his partners. Mackie has also been showing up in a number of movies, and each time I tend to like him a little more. Again playing a soldier, in a bit part in EAGLE EYE, the drug dealer Frank in HALF NELSON and even playing Tupac in the recent bio-pic NOTORIOUS.

Then there are the supporting and cameo roles. I mentioned Pearce, who in his few minutes on-screen I almost want to demand a prequel that has him as the lead. Then there’s Ralph Fiennes – taking time off from being the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter series – as one of the British soldiers who has captured a couple of the Iraqi Elite, who had their faces printed on the Terrorist Playing Card decks. Lastly, there’s the almost blink and you’ll miss him scene with David Morse, who has long been an actor that I’ve liked seeing on screen – either in THE ROCK, CONTACT or THE GREEN MILE. His character seems like there is probably quite a bit more left on the cutting room floor, but in his all-too-brief moment, he was captivating, and I was left kind of wondering whether he was going to be a good guy or a dick – which he’s equally good at playing. And of course, the movie having been filmed in Jordan, had a number of Iraqi emigrants cast in roles in the movie, and the few that get speaking parts or we see more than once are all good at making us believe the world we’re in. Like the little kid selling pirated DVD’s, named Beckham (he carries around a soccer ball) – played by Christopher sayegh, and an Iraqi professor who mistakes one of the soldiers for a CIA agent -and we’re left wondering if he’s happy to have the agent there for good reasons or bad – played by Nabil Koni.

The movie itself, is shot in a documentary style, that I think works very well and I believe will be one of those movies that gets a pass from the people that normally complain about shaky-camera work. And yet, there are clear moments where we seem to venture into a more polished, Hollywood action movie style – which actually isn’t jarring, but only actually adds to the tension – like in the opening scene, already mentioned. From a seeming writing stand-point, there are only really a few faults I have with the movie, where it seems to break the more realistic-type approach to the movie so that certain events can be put into effect and have somethings happen. For example, a moment where the soldiers come under fire by unseen snipers, while assisting some British soldiers; why would one of the British guys get to man the US Army’s 50 caliber machine gun mounted on their humvee? To die, obviously, and not have one of our main characters be the casualty; or when the movie seems to veer into renegade soldier territory when James thinks that a local kid has been harmed by some insurgents, so he takes a vendor – who doesn’t speak English hostage – and goes charging into someone’s house. Minor quibbles, in an otherwise pretty great movie, but still does knock it down a peg.

But, overall, I’m just kind of saddened that this movie has been under-promoted and restricted to only limited showings. This movie could have been a contender for a Summer hit, but instead it’s grouped in with the smaller, but still some great movies (MOON, THE BROTHERS BLOOM and (500) DAYS OF SUMMER).

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