Friday, April 2, 2010

The Hurt Locker [movie review]

* Released theatrically in June 2009 (re-released in March); now on DVD
There likely hasn't been a film released in the last year that was more critically adored and showered with awards than The Hurt Locker, which leaves me completely baffled. When it first hit my radar after its initial release last summer, I watched it with extremely high expectations based on accolades such as it being "a near-perfect movie" (Time magazine) and an overall Metacritic rating of 94/100. Somewhere between the hype and the actual quality of the film, though, lies a huge chasm of "huh?". I rarely watch many movies multiple times, especially ones I didn't like the first time around, but the The Hurt Locker's universal adulation prompted me to give it a second viewing. What was I missing? My conclusion: the movie still isn't very good, my initial reaction was correct, and most of the rest of the world is, well, wrong. Pardon the hubris.
Based on screenwriter Mark Boal's reports as an embedded journalist with an Army bomb squad in Baghdad in 2004, the movie focuses on a small bomb disposal team comprised of three figures whose own distinct personalities are an obvious construct to create some drama and conflict. Sergeant JT Sanborn (played by Anthony Mackie) keeps a level head and tends to stick with protocol and Specialist Owen Eldridge (played by Brian Geraghty) is skittish and seemingly teetering on the brink of a mental meltdown. The newest member of the squad is Staff Sergeant William James, whose portrayal by virtual unknown Jeremy Renner was deemed Oscar-worthy this year (he lost to Jeff Bridges). James' character is an adrenaline junkie with a cowboy attitude just verging on reckless, which can be a potentially lethal combination in his line of work.
There isn't much of a plot to the film - seven loosely connected "in the field" scenarios are broken up with dull, inconsequential sequences that show the squad members during their downtime, doing things like getting drunk and punching each other hard in the stomach. The film's action sequences have been highly praised, but I wasn't impressed at all by their setup or execution. One scene showing the squad waiting out a sniper goes on for an eternity. It may be factually accurate, showing that not all combat is chaotic action, but, in fact, plenty of patient waiting for the right moment to strike. That doesn't mean it makes for an entertaining movie scene, however. Critics also heaped praised on the film for its gritty realism, which is fairly meaningless since I'm doubting any of them have ever spent time in the military. Interestingly, a perusal of reader comments on Metacritic shows a less enthusiastic reaction to the film than critics, with a number of comments coming from people claiming to be veterans who actually criticize the movie for its lack of realism.
The factor that plays the largest role in sinking the movie for me is that Renner's lead character is just too hard to root for. His personality is abrasive, the small snippets into his personal life inspire no allegiance from the viewer, and he's extremely hard to read. Mackie's and Geraghty's supporting roles are also completely unremarkable, which means we're 0 for 3 in terms of any engaging performances from the film's principle actors. That's an uphill climb no movie can recover from.
The Hurt Locker has succeeded in pulling the biggest con job on movie critics and the Academy in recent memory. It won six of the nine Oscars it was nominated for, including the coveted Best Motion Picture Of The Year. Director Kathryn Bigelow took home an award for her work, despite the fact the annoyingly shaky camera work distracts from the film, which unbelievably also won an Oscar for best editing (did I mention the movie is also way too long)?. I guess the stupidly quick jump cuts and seasick visuals are supposed to be tension heighteners. Normally, a good screenplay and strong performances should take care of most of that work, but that certainly isn't the case here...although that didn't stop Boal from scoring another inexplicable Oscar win for his limp script. At least movie consumers haven't consumed the Kool-Aid - The Hurt Locker had the lowest box office figures of any Best Picture winner in the last 41 years and a recent theatrical re-release to capitalize on its Oscar love also failed to make much of an impact.
Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

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