Wednesday, 17 February 2010


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War films are always a hard sell so it's understandable that the Australian distributors of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker have waited until now, in the wake of its nine Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, to release it. The strategy, however, is a double-edged sword: interest will be piqued but expectations will be heightened.

American audiences stayed away from The Hurt Locker when it was released there mid 2009, with the film grossing less than $20 million. But if Australian audiences go in to The Hurt Locker prepared to embrace it on its own terms, and not as the potential dragon slayer of James Cameron's Avatar, they will be rewarded – and shaken, no 3D glasses required.

Bigelow's film, from an economic screenplay by Mark Boal (also one of the film's producers), follows an American bomb disposal unit in Iraq. It is essentially a series of set pieces with an escalating tension factor as we follow the team from one mission to the next.

The team, consisting of just three soldiers, is under the new command of Sgt James (Best Actor contender Jeremy Renner) – no points for guessing what happened to his predecessor. A cowboy of a soldier, James has little time for protocol and seems to have somewhat of a death wish. “If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable,” he tells his teammates when he abandons his protective helmet to disarm a car bomb.

War may be a drug, as a prologue quotes, but Sgt James's preferred substance would appear to be adrenaline. It's not that he wants to die but the daily possibility of being eviscerated keeps him feeling alive. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the team's voice of reason who has no time for James's recklessness, and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the youngest of the trio and the most afraid of dieing, would rather complete their rotation with as little risk as possible.

While that's essentially it as far as character and plot are concerned, Bigelow certainly capitalises on the 'less is more' approach. A skilled director in action films – she made the Keanu Reeves surf movie Point Break (1991) and the mid-90s sci-fi Strange Days (1995) with Ralph Fiennes, who makes a cameo here – Bigelow knows how to get pulses racing. You'll find yourself holding your breath during some sequences and by film's end your nerves will be jangled and frayed.

Having won the majority of US critics' prizes, The Hurt Locker is the favourite to win the Best Picture-Director double at the upcoming Oscars. This presents the delicious irony of the least commercially successful film of the 10 Best Picture contenders trumping the highest grossing film of all time, Avatar. And Bigelow, an ex-Mrs James Cameron, becoming the first female winner of the Best Director Oscar for directing what has traditionally been a male director's genre. I say, bring it on.

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