It's perhaps unfortunate to see "The Hurt Locker" now, after its hype machine has been churning full-speed for several months. When the movie debuted last year, it was a small independent film, starring little-known actors, that struggled to even find a U.S. distributor. Now it's on every critic's best-of-2009 list and being touted as the probable Oscar winner in multiple categories. So you come into the movie expecting to be wowed.
That's pretty hard to live up to, and "The Hurt Locker" didn't quite do it for me. Don't get me wrong, it's a great movie — and certainly the best film I've seen about the war in Iraq (not that I've seen many). But it was far from a pitch-perfect masterpiece.
First, let me say what I liked about the movie, which centers on a bomb-disposal unit. The acting was superb. The action sequences are taut and well-choreographed. And the dialogue gives depth to the characters economically.
Director Kathryn Bigelow also has a nifty way of getting around the redshirt problem (where a movie telegraphs the fact that a minor character is about to be killed). Spoiler warning: She employs the film's only famous actors in the redshirt roles, to subvert your expectations. No one would expect her to kill off Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce within a few minutes of them appearing on screen. And yet, that's what she does. (It's still hard to beat the shockingly abrupt death of Samuel L. Jackson in "Deep Blue Sea," though.)
On the down side, I thought her directing included a few odd flourishes. The film wisely relies on a documentary-style approach to put you in the middle of the action — and yet, when it comes time to show you the first big explosion, she decides to pull back and use a slow-motion effect. It actually downplays rather than heightens the explosion's power. In another scene, she punctuates a shootout with a hackneyed shot of shell casings hitting the sand, as if a John Woo effect accidentally got spliced in with her documentary footage. These are nitpicks, yes, but they're distracting — the kind of stuff you see Spike Lee do in his films that mars the experience.
The soundtrack also left much to be desired. I could put up with the grating Ministry heavy-metal songs because they're part of the character development. But the cheesy synthesizer background music felt better suited to an early-1990s made-for-TV drama. Having no music at all might have been better.
The movie consists of intense action sequences — the characters are defusing bombs, after all — but there's no sense of escalation. "The Hurt Locker" is a string of desultory scenes that reveal the characters, without building toward a climax. Since the movie is more of a character study than anything, that's probably alright. (In this sense, it's the exact opposite of "Avatar," which hit every action-movie cue precisely when it was supposed to.) But you have to wonder if there was a way to craft a film that gradually increased the stakes until the very end. Maybe that was the point — that in a war, you're just as likely to be killed on Day 1 as Day 38, and there's no rhyme or reason to it. In that case, bravo.
Finally: As an anachronism hawk, I was amused to see a character refer to YouTube in a movie set in 2004. (It didn't exist at the time.) Maybe it signifies that YouTube has become so integral a part of our lives, we can't imagine that it's such a recent invention.
BuboBlog Review: 3.5 asterisks (out of 4).
UPDATE: It's worth noting that — like "Superman 4: The Quest for Peace" — "The Hurt Locker" is NOT one of those movies where the title is mentioned. If you see the film, though, it's pretty clear what the title refers to.