The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker

This is about to be a very bad day at the office for Staff Sgt. William James.

(Summit) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo. Directed by Karthryn Bigelow

The movie opens up with a quotation from New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” That is to say, the exhilaration brought on by the adrenaline rush of imminent death and constant danger is addictive. At least, so it seems to be for some.

Staff Sgt. William James (Renner) is a bomb defuser for an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, responsible for rendering harmless roadside bombs, car bombs and other devices meant to cause harm to soldiers and civilians alike. It is Iraq in 2004, and the U.S. military has become entrenched in a war no longer justifiable, at least to our minds. Those who are there might see things a little differently.

James has joined a support crew of Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) and the team’s nominal leader Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) due to the grisly death of his predecessor, Sgt. Matt Thompson (Pearce). This is indeed a dangerous business, and the support crew needs to be as alert and on their toes as the bomb defuser or else people die. The support crew keeps watch for Iraqis with detonation devices, snipers or other means of causing the defuser to be unable to do his job. The support crew, particularly Eldridge, had failed to do this and Thompson wound up paying the price for it.

Eldridge and Sanborn have about a month left in their rotation and their only concern is making it out alive. While Sanborn is a pretty by-the-book guy, James is another kind of animal entirely. He is reckless, taking chances not only with his own life but with those of his team. He disobeys protocol without batting an eyelash. The only thing that keeps him from being locked up is that he is absolutely superb at what he does, taking terrifyingly complex devices and figuring out how to defuse them safely.

He seems to be an adrenaline junkie on the surface, but he has another side to him, one he doesn’t allow his team to see. He befriends a young Iraqi boy who sells pirated DVDs; when the boy is killed by insurgents, James loses it. He is almost cocky in his arrogance but shows a great deal of vulnerability when he lets his guard down – which is admittedly not all that often.

Still, he is called upon to take out bomb after bomb in the heat of an Iraqi summer. How long will his luck last – and how long will his skill save him?

This is the reigning winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and you certainly can argue that it deserved it. While there is much room for debate over the morality of the war, this isn’t about whether we should be there and instead tackles the question of how the stress of being there affects those who deal with the situation day after day.

Jeremy Renner was until now a well-regarded but not well-known actor but all that has changed. The performance he gives here is a career-maker, one that will be associated with him for the rest of his life. His portrayal is nuanced and layered; you get a sense of what motivates SSgt. James but only tantalizing glimpses; much of what is behind the bravado is inferred, and Renner does a marvelous job of giving you clues without being overt.

Lost in the accolades for Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for her work here and for Renner, who was nominated for a Best Actor, is the supporting cast. Mackie and Geraghty in particular deliver top notch work, giving Renner all the room he needs to shine.

Bigelow ratchets the tension up with every mission the team goes on. Each bomb is more fiendish and complicated than the last. Because we come to care for these characters, the tension works much better because we don’t want to see them get blown to pieces.

At times the imagery is simply horrifying, much more so than any horror movie can deliver because you realize that the perpetrators are human beings and that these kinds of things really do go on, with our servicemen and women having to deal with the emotional fallout of these horrors. Some of what we see is almost beyond imagining, like a young boy who has an explosive device surgically implanted in him, or an unwilling man who has a suicide bomb strapped to him. The cruelty of those who would do such things makes you wonder if it might not be better for everyone involved if we didn’t bomb the whole damn country back into the Stone Age. Of course, we have to keep in mind that they are the actions of a fanatic few, not the entire population but the thought is certainly tempting at times.

The Hurt Locker is probably not going to change your mind about war. War is Hell, as the saying goes, and Hell is an unfathomably hot and cruel place. The soldiers in this movie are getting a guided tour, and through them, so do we. Unfortunately, movies set in the Iraqi War have not done well at the box office, even superb ones like this one, but this is the kind of movie that you will remember for a long time after having seen it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great intensity from beginning to end. Renner gives a career-making performance. We care enough about the characters that the tension is increased exponentially because of it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of war violence and the kind of language you’d expect in these situations. Quite frankly, it’s the tension more than anything else that makes this not for the faint of heart.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing movie (adjusted for inflation) to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, but given the honors accrued by the movie after the home video release, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a special edition sometime around Christmas.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Toy Story 3

Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box