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THE HURT LOCKER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Digital Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 1310 Minutes
Release Date: January 12, 2010

What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?

The way you don't die, sir.

Film ****

I hadn't thought about it before seeing The Hurt Locker, but it had been an awfully long time since I sat down to a movie and thought to myself, I am in the presence of something truly great. This modestly budgeted film that didn't score at the box office went on to Oscar glory, even taking the top prize away from the biggest grossing movie of all time.

I had been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow's for a long time. I always thought Near Dark was one of the best and most under-appreciated vampire movies. Point Break raised the bar for adrenaline rush films. Strange Days was indeed as strange as the title proclaimed, and a work of originality and brilliance.

Then came a decade of virtual absence from the screen...her expensive (and again, under-appreciated) submarine thriller K-19 didn't seem to attract critics or audiences, and in Hollywood, it only takes one misfire to constitute a derailed career.

But she and her talent certainly triumphed...not only did The Hurt Locker win her the first ever Best Director Oscar awarded to a female director, she more or less took it away from her ex-husband James Cameron. She shouldn't feel bad...the billion or so dollars his film raked in can buy an awful lot of Kleenex.

And yet the Oscar wins are only the punctuation for the story. This film is incredible, hypnotic, and affected me like few movies these days have the power to do. In a decade when film after film politicized our efforts in the Middle East while audiences yawned and looked for better ways to spend their entertainment dollars, here was a movie with no agenda other than to bring us close to the people who do the fighting, and what they have to endure.

It's about a squad whose job is to find and diffuse bombs and improvised explosive devices. And when the squad loses its leader early on, the replacement is Staff Sergeant William James (Renner, in an Oscar-nominated role). James is the best at what he does. Obsessed, meticulous, and possibly even a little reckless, he stares at a device meant to kill him with fascination and understanding, and even respect. He keeps a piece of every bomb he's dismantled.

Assisting him are Sergeant JT Sanborn (Mackie), who constantly fears that James, despite his skills, puts them in unnecessary danger, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty), who sees a doctor in his down times to deal with his stresses and fears.

There are, as you probably might imagine, scenes of almost unbearable suspense. Not only does James have to disarm devices that could kill them all at any second, he has to do so under the nerve-wracking stares of civilians from rooftops and windows afar, many with cell phones or cameras, hoping to catch an American being killed by an IED for terrorist recruitment websites.

The story is also chaptered by a countdown of days, so you know just how much longer this group has on its tour. As the days get closer and closer to zero, you can't help but expect something terrible. Instead, what you get is something so unexpected, yet so brilliant and perfect, it left my wife in almost hysterical tears...not because she grieved, but because she was so moved by it all.

Kathryn Bigelow dedicated her Oscar win to the troops, but perhaps her best dedication to them was simply the making of this film. Some have criticized that the way these men go about their business in Iraq is not entirely realistic, but it IS a fictional film, and I would argue that the true focus of the film isn't the processes, but the people, and that is the real tribute.

James is a unique character as far as the screen goes, but for those of us who know soldiers who have served and come back, and sometimes more than once, we recognize an element of truth in him. The opening quote about war being a drug might have some merit, but only in an easily summarizing way. This film suggests that there is something deeper at play when a man and a mission become so perfectly matched as to become inseparable.

And his story, which also won an Oscar for original screenplay, was given just the right director in Bigelow, who creates a documentary-style feel with hand-held cameras, but takes it to incredible heights with tight editing (also winning an Oscar) and an almost relentless sense of urgency. But any competent director could have delivered on the suspense in a picture like this; her gift was in bringing an intimate sense of humanity to it all. So again, any complaint about the depiction of the processes is missing the point...this is about the PEOPLE.

When it was all said and done, as I've said, my wife and I were moved to a state of near speechlessness, and I was aware that I had been given an increasingly rare gift as a seasoned film critic: I was able to spend a couple of hours in the presence of real greatness.

Video ****

It might not be a conventional four star rating, but I feel this Blu-ray presentation captures Ms. Bigelow's vision perfectly. It's not about high style, but about the realism and the feel, and every hot, shimmering detail of Iraq comes through with cleanness and crispness. Sometimes the film stock is purposely a little less than ideal, maybe partially owing to budget, but it serves the movie's purpose distinctly. Images are sharp and well-defined in both lighter and darker settings.

Audio ****

There's a good reason this film took home a pair of Oscars for its sound, and there's a good bet come year's end, this disc will be riding high at the DMC Awards for this inspiring and brilliant DTS HD soundtrack. Sure, it's the potency of gunfire and explosions you would expect from a war movie, but really, it's the constant and subtle uses of ambient sounds that make this such a standout experience. Most of the suspense comes from long stretches of quiet, with us hearing what the men hear. A plane? Is it coming our way? No...it's passed far off in the distance. Helicopters? Is that an approaching vehicle? Every sound is purposefully planned and well-designed to add to the suspense, and the full use of surround and bass channel make this one of the most engrossing and perfectly serving listens in recent memory.

Features **

It isn't often you get to sit down to a commentary with a pair of Oscar winners, but this disc offers just that, with Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal discussing how they brought this project to life. There is also a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and an image gallery.

Summary:

The Hurt Locker is a mesmerizing, character driven look at those who do the fighting and honors them by bringing us into their world without prejudice or judgment, showing us only the bravery, the daring, the recklessness...in short, the humanity that makes them the finest in the world at what they do. It deserved full Oscar glory and will stand out as one of the decade's most defining works of cinematic art.

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