It’s quite likely that Staff Sergeant William James (Renner)—the bomb-defusing expert at the center of the terrific Iraq War action film The Hurt Locker—was named by screenwriter Mark Boal after a certain pragmatic 19th-century philosopher. On the cleverness-to-profundity scale, that falls somewhere between calling a desert-island survivalist Locke and christening a living stuffed tiger Hobbes. But James is more than his moniker, not so much larger-than-life as eternally engaged, gruntlike, with the one thing he does better than anyone else.
Renner, whose half-muscled pudginess calls to mind Fassbinder circa Fox and His Friends, gets inside James’s skin in ways that a more seasoned celebrity could not. It’s a role that might have easily devolved into one-note paeans to badassery, especially in concert with an episodic story structure that constantly toggles between machismo-laden home-base drama and perilously prolonged fieldwork. Yet in this actor’s hands, the character comes off with a credible working-class clarity—he’s less concerned with performing kiss-off heroics than with doing a good job and pissing the night away.
The James-free prologue, which features the first of two kill-’em-off star cameos, seemingly sets the stakes high. But director Kathryn Bigelow, doing her run-’n’-gun best, doesn’t mine traditional suspense so much as impart a queasy feeling of monotony. The Hurt Locker is all about existing in an often repetitious moment. Superimposed titles count down the days left in James and his squad’s rotation, though there’s little sense of movement toward an ultimate endpoint. As the opening Chris Hedges quote (“War is a drug”) suggests, there are no accomplishments in this line of work, only an unending round of highs, lows and in-betweens.—Keith Uhlich
See also “She’s the bomb”