Let's start with the suit.
The bomb suit we see in The Hurt Locker is real—100 pounds of tough fabric and steel that looks, for all the world, like a moon-ready space suit, worn to survive strange and hostile worlds. In the 115-degree Iraqi heat, it must feel like a movable dungeon: A semi-mobile pressure cooker that slowly bakes you from the inside out.
No matter. This suit isn't built for comfort. It's built to keep its breathing, sweating cargo alive.
But even in that, it sometimes fails.
It's 2004, and a suited Army sergeant shuffles dustily down what seems to be a deserted Iraqi street. His tiny team of fellow bomb technicians waits behind him. A possible explosive device, buried in a mound of debris, lies ahead of him. And around him, a hundred eyes—curious and apprehensive—watch.
An explosion gashes the street, a beast running in every direction. It catches the sergeant and carries him down, shrapnel burrowing into the suit. Scarlet sprays the inside of his visor.
The sergeant's team grieves the loss. But this is war, and the squad still must do its dangerous duty. So a new suit-wearing, shrapnel-bearing sergeant comes in to make it complete again. Staff Sgt. William James says he's not there to fill anyone's shoes: He just wants to do his job.
But for James, defusing bombs is more than a job: It's a rush—an addictive game of chicken. A box under his bed is full "of stuff that almost killed me"—a bomb switch, a piece of wire, a metal casing. He ignores the team's mechanical, bomb-sniffing rover and instead walks into unknown peril himself. During one particularly hairy disarmament, he strips off the suit, rendering himself unprotected.
"If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," he says.
Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, James' by-the-book wingman, would be far more comfortable if James would stop rolling the dice on every mission.
"This is suicide, man," Sanborn tells James, as the latter man moves to defuse a bomb strapped to an Iraqi's chest.
"That's why they call it a suicide bomber, right?" James quips back.
The risks James takes, though, are no laughing matter—particularly for Sanborn, who would very much like to survive long enough to see his plane ticket take him home.
James has his share of faults, and he might even be a little nuts. But he's also, without question, a natural soldier and inspiring leader—John Wayne in a bomb suit.
When his Explosive Ordinance Disposal team gets pinned down by snipers, James' cool calm cuts through the battle terror like a ceramic blade: He helps Sanborn pick off gunmen one by one during an all-day standoff, and he gives his fellow sergeant a juice box while he goes without. He eases the nerves of the team's young specialist, Owen Eldridge, like a mother, coaxing him through his duties with tranquil, encouraging directions. While Sanborn snaps at and threatens Iraqis, at one point telling Eldridge that "they all look alike," James befriends them easily, like they were neighborhood chums back home.
Sanborn hates James' methods, and the two clash bitterly at times. But Sanborn also is, in his own way, a good soldier: Namely, he strives to keep everybody in line and, most importantly, safe. At the end of the day, he wants everyone to make it out of the war alive—even the loose-cannon sergeant he works with.
A cross hangs from the rearview mirror of the EOD unit's vehicle. James talks about the dangers of getting "blown back to Jesus." An Iraqi man mutters a prayer, presumably to Allah, shortly before the bomb he's been strapped to detonates.
Soldiers crudely reference critical parts of their anatomy, bodily fluids and sexual acts during discussion and banter. An Iraqi boy helps sell DVDs on base—at least some of which are apparently erotic. He tells a soldier that if he wants "donkey porn" or "gay sex," he can find it for him. A soldier, who returns to base after curfew, claims he was out visiting a brothel. (He wasn't.) While engaging in some horseplay, James sits on Sanborn's chest, his legs straddling Sanborn's head, and "rides" him like a saddle bronc—a scene that carries, perhaps, both sexual and racial overtones.
The Hurt Locker is a hard film to watch, in some respects, but it earns its tension more through storytelling and suggestion than onscreen carnage. That said, audiences still see lots of violence, death and blood.
While clearing out an apparent bomb-making operation in the heart of one town, James, Sanborn and Eldridge come across the bloodied corpse of a boy. The body has been turned into a makeshift bomb, with explosives stitched inside the chest. James carefully removes the stitches, reaching into the body and pulling out the device with a sickeningly moist sound.
James, Sanborn and Eldridge get pinned down in the middle of the desert with a small team of British soldiers, who are sniped down one by one. When the British leader is hit while trying to shoot back, Sanborn takes over the gun—but the bullets are wet with the British leader's blood. So James hands the bullet clip to Eldridge and asks him to clean off the blood with a little spit. As the long-distance battle creeps on, the snipers are slowly picked off, with one going down in a spray of blood.
An Iraqi woman verbally and physically assaults a soldier. Iraqi children throw rocks at a moving Army vehicle and taunt the soldiers inside. James jokingly tells an Iraqi boy that he'll cut off his head with a dull knife if the boy sells him shoddy merchandise.
Sanborn suggests that they kill a guy and make it look like an accident. Several soldiers threaten Iraqis at gunpoint—sometimes with cause, sometimes not. An Iraqi, apparently weaponized against his will, walks into the middle of the street with a bomb strapped and padlocked to his torso. The Army bomb squad eventually gives up, leaving the man to die—which he does. After a few soldiers capture an injured Iraqi—an apparent insurgent who just detonated a bomb—the soldiers' commanding officer strides by and tells the captors that the Iraqi isn't going to make it. Shortly thereafter, we hear a gunshot.
Beyond the death of the first EOD unit leader I described earlier, another American soldier gets gunned down: Though he survives, the bullets shatter his leg (we later hear). Sanborn and James engage in horseplay that involves each hitting the other in the gut as hard as they can. Not so playfully, Sanborn punches James in the face and puts a knife to his neck.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 75 f-words and 40 s-words. We hear God's name misused a half-dozen times. (Several times it is paired with "d--n.") Jesus' name is abused another five or six times. Other foul words include "b--ch," "b--tard" and "n-gger."
Drug and Alcohol Content
After a particularly grueling day, James, Sanborn and Eldridge drink themselves into a seriously impaired state. (James and Eldridge carry a passed-out Sanborn back to his bunk.) Soldiers smoke cigarettes, and James offers one to an Iraqi boy, who accepts—before James tells him that he shouldn't smoke.
Other Negative Elements
Several soldiers disregard orders and common sense, disrespecting their chain of command. One goes so far as to kidnap an Iraqi and break into a house.
At its core, The Hurt Locker asks a deeply provocative, two-pronged question: Why is it that some people thrive in the middle of a war, and why do they grow to love it so?
James is the film's official case study—a practitioner of one of the Iraq War's most thankless yet most dangerous jobs. And he does it by choice.
"It's a pretty interesting group of people," Mark Boal, who wrote and produced The Hurt Locker, tells salon.com. "You're talking about guys who not only volunteered for the military, which says something in itself, but who volunteered for this super high-risk job. It's a group of people who like evil situations. That's the path they have chosen. Sometimes they can pay a high price for their attraction to risk. It's not unique to the bomb squad. I imagine if you looked at vice detectives in New York City, or firefighters or race-car drivers or war correspondents, you might find the same thing."
James, as played by Jeremy Renner, is in turns sympathetic, heroic, immature and frightening. Is our military better because of people like James? Worse? The film intentionally doesn't tell us. And that may actually be its hidden key to successfully probing the issue. It's as Bryant Frazer writes for deep-focus.com, "The Hurt Locker boils down to an affectionate but ambiguous tribute to the career soldier that's free of condescension, cynicism, or jingoism."
Indeed, The Hurt Locker is undeniably well-crafted and deserves the sky-high accolades it's receiving from many reviewers. But for my purposes in this review, I'll end on a cautionary note: Families enter this war zone at their peril. The film offers us a hard, gritty look at modern warfare, and the view is of an improvised bomb, as it were, seconds away from detonation. It is often not pretty or flattering, and no suit made, no matter how heavy, can protect viewers from its shrapnel.