"War is a drug." So reads the quotation by American journalist Chris Hedges that precedes Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." The film has a clear thesis, but offers little of substance to extrapolate or back it up. The movie is remarkably effective on the gut level of provoking an emotional response, but relies on a few disappointing action cliches that prevent it from truly being the masterpiece others have been so quick to hail it as.
The aforementioned quote refers to the bomb-diffusing, adrenaline-addled protagonist of the film, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who deals so intimately with death in his day job, that everything else starts to feel a little bit dull by comparison. Or at least that's the idea. In execution, James comes off more as your prototypical action hero than the fascinating subject of a character study. He behaves like every other Bourne/Bond/Bay superman to grace the screen in recent memory, and the film declines to comment on this condition until the last thirty minutes or so, making what should be the core of the piece feel more like an afterthought.
The pacing is unhelpful as well, broken up as the story is into isolated encounters that neither build in the traditional narrative sense nor offer more than a diverting peripheral glimpse into the lives of the characters. The sequences are so arbitrarily episodic that their order could seemingly be shuffled with little to no detriment to the comprehensibility of the story arc. Ostensibly, "The Hurt Locker" is a film with a clearly defined beginning and end and enough style to keep what's in between from feeling stagnant.
Sure, the bomb diffusion sequences are great. Through the use of ambient sound effects and hand-held camera work (a testament to its correct usage) with an almost Hitchcockian suspense-building prowess, Bigelow is able to masterfully pluck the audience's heartstrings like so many delicate red wires. It's a shame these refreshing, interesting, entertaining pieces of the film are undercut by its vacuous, nearly non-existent story.
And though I'll champion the style in a general sense, the film's pleasing documentary aesthetic is blatantly violated in two auspicious moments, and as far as I can remember, only two. One is a Matrix-esque dancing bullet shell that meets the sand in super-slow motion, and the other, a bomb exploding at an equally fast shutter-speed from multiple angles, letting the audience pause to consider the visual significance of watching the paint peel from the skeleton of a car or a dust cloud rippling in the blast. The moments are pure Hollywood and feel completely removed from the intention of the rest of the film.
Perhaps the most profound moment comes toward the end, when James is confronted with the one, and really only, consequence of his actions, leading to the serious injury of a squad member. However, the implications are decidedly secondary to the film's conclusion, which has all the subtlety and self-aware military chic of an Army recruitment spot, which sabotages James' only meaningful character change and will likely send you out of the theater with a razz between your lips.
So ignore the hype and the nonsensical title. If you approach "Hurt Locker" looking for a little summer fun, the ingredients are assuredly there. Just don't let the art house fool you into thinking Kathryn Bigelow's latest offers much more than a few cheap thrills.
If war is a drug, "The Hurt Locker" is a placebo.