Pop quiz, hotshot: name five female directors. Tick-tock, tick-tock... Did you manage five? Congratulations if so. Round two: name five female directors who don't make drippy, sappy, piece-of-shit rom-coms, musicals or turgid period dramas. Give up? Yeah, thought so. Doesn't say much for the fairer sex, does it?
Welcome back Kathryn Bigelow. A quick refresher: she's the director behind pitch black vampire romp Near Dark, dick-measuring dude-fest Point Break and quasi-future millennium thriller Strange Days - all flicks that rivalled former hubby James Cameron in the adrenaline stakes.
Despite a lengthy absence, she's returned with The Hurt Locker, an Iraq war drama - no, come back! - that dispenses with political hand-wringing and concentrates on the immediate perils faced on the frontlines. Kicking off with a quote from war correspondent Chris Hedges ("War is a drug"), it's a relief to see that Bigelow's lust for the most dangerous of thrills hasn't dimmed.
Though the subject is not narcotic in nature, the theme of addiction hangs heavy like dust in the air. Following a group of American EODs - that's bomb disposal guys to you and I - as they complete their rotation in Iraq, The Hurt Locker is devastatingly simple yet palm-sweatingly effective. This is a genre movie stripped down to its core elements: man versus bomb.
Less a narrative and more a string of detonation set-pieces, each disposal scene unfolds as if on a knife-edge, pitting new team Staff Sergeant Will James (Renner) against an assortment of explosive devices. Though colleagues Sanford (Mackie) and Eldridge (Geraghty) are present throughout, this is the story of one man's compulsion to live dangerously: he's a man who stares death in the face each and every day.
The Hurt Locker is refreshingly free of gung-ho firefights and flag-waving - every action scene is measured to perfection, agonisingly so. With no big stars on board - aside from a few cameos too fun to spoil here - it is a lottery as to who will survive and what will be left of them. As such, scenes play out at a painfully slow pace, ramping up the tension with every snipped wire.
As James does his thing, his colleagues face an altogether different challenge: identifying which Iraqi citizens are merely rubbernecking, and which pose a genuine threat. Like the EODs in the thick of the action, you'll view every mobile phone and video camera with high suspicion - some scenes are so highly-strung, they churn the stomach with nerves. Shot on several handheld cameras - on a ratio of 100:1 to film shot and film used - Bigelow puts you square in the thick of the action: the tang of dudesweat almost stings the eyes.
Politics has no real place in The Hurt Locker: the enemy here is mostly mechanical, undefined and intangible. Bigelow isn't so much concerned about proposing a solution as she is dismantling the more immediate problems - the ones that can
As such, The Hurt Locker distances itself from failed Iraq dramas like Stop-Loss and In The Valley Of Elah; while the bigger political issues are still raging as we speak, it's the personal stories that allow for maximum emotional attachment. Soldiers care little for foreign policy when bullets are flying at their heads; why should we pretend anything else matters but the lives on the line?
Kudos to Bigelow also for refusing to allow Renner to play the out-and-out good guy. In a lesser movie, soldiers with his disregard for protocol would be celebrated; filmed against a sunset with a soft-rock soundtrack. Here, he's socked in the face the moment he pulls his action hero bullshit. James' character arc is an fascinating one, starting the movie as over-confident GI Joe with balls the size of basketballs before slowly unravelling into a twitchy ball of anxiety and self-doubt - like the junkie who'll do anything for his next high. It's a powerhouse performance, both physically and emotionally: Renner is a real find.
Mackie and Geraghty offer fine support; the former making good mileage out of what's essentially a straight man character, the latter lending real emotion to what could have been a two-dimensional dim sidekick. Soldiers in The Hurt Locker aren't necessarily directionless, as in Jarhead, or tortured and angsty, as in Stop-Loss - these are men defined by conflict, forged in the searing heat of battle. There's little time for interaction between them - the closest they get to bonding is a good-natured post-kill beatdown, necking shots before taking blows to the stomach and collapsing in a mixture of pain and pride. Hoo-ra!
Simply put, they're characters you care about - you want to see them survive at any cost, no matter the setting. It's in refusing to plant a flag on one side or the other over the Iraq war debacle that Bigelow may just have made the conflict's defining film: words are cheap, but it's action that matters. It's also ironic that it's taken a woman to make a movie with more balls than all of this year's summer blockbusters combined. Pardon the pun, but The Hurt Locker will simply blow you away.