The Hurt Locker - Jeremy Renner plays the leader of a bomb disposal team in Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-shredding Iraq war movie

People often make a fuss about Kathryn Bigelow’s status as a female director of action movies as if it’s her gender that makes her special. Yet the remarkable thing about Bigelow isn’t that she’s an action director with breasts, it’s that she’s an action director with brains.

In a summer that’s seen the latest testosterone-fuelled efforts from Hollywood’s big swinging dick directors Michael Bay (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and McG (Terminator: Salvation), Bigelow’s gripping Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker comes as welcome relief.

The Hurt Locker - director Kathryn Bigelow on location during the shooting of her Iraq war movie

Bigelow – maker of the cult vampire movie Near Dark, the surfing-‘n’-sky-diving crime adventure Point Break and the underrated sci-fi thriller Strange Days – can convey macho heroics and combustive violence as well as anyone, but in her hands the mayhem is never mindless: you always get the sense of a keen intelligence at work.

Machismo and intelligence are the signature traits of Bigelow’s latest protagonist, a redneck US army sergeant who takes over a three-man bomb-disposal team in Baghdad in 2004. Fearless to the point of recklessness, Jeremy Renner’s William James dismays his new colleagues, Sandborn and Eldridge (played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty), with his gung-ho approach to the job. With 38 days left in their tour of duty, the pair simply want to get home in one piece, yet their new leader thrives on the danger. And as the team goes about its task of defusing improvised explosive devices in conditions of searing heat and constant threat, James’s risky methods put all their lives on the line.

The Hurt Locker - Anthony Mackie’s Sandborn & Jeremy Renner’s James come under fire in Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-shredding Iraq war movie

Written by American journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq in 2004, The Hurt Locker ignores the bigger picture of US military involvement in Iraq to focus instead on the soldiers in the field. Some people may find the film’s exclusion of the wider context a flaw, yet Bigelow puts across the reality of the US occupation – unwelcome for occupied and occupiers alike – in a way that puts the earnest hand-wringing of such films as Robert Redford’s Lion for Lambs to shame.

Bigelow’s sympathies lie with the ordinary soldiers, but the ones who clearly fascinate her are the ones for whom “the rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” (The quote, which introduces the movie, is by American war correspondent Chris Hedges.) Renner’s James is just such a junkie.

The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-shredding Iraq war movie

For me, he resembles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, whose daring high-wire walk between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974 was the subject of last year’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Both share a single-minded intensity of focus and a seemingly insane bravado; and both clearly get a rush from danger but must remain absolutely calm to perform their literally death-defying feats.

These feats are heart-stopping to watch, but it’s impossible to look away. With cinematographer Barry Ackroyd deploying jittery hand-helm cameras to stunning effect, Bigelow puts us right there alongside James as he puzzles over the intricate mechanics of the latest IED, and right there alongside Sandborn and Eldridge too as they scan a hostile environment in which a figure on a balcony might be a sniper and a bystander with a mobile phone could be an insurgent about to trigger a bomb. Switching effortlessly between passages of nerve-shredding suspense and ones of adrenalin-charged excitement, The Hurt Locker blows away the competition.

Released 28th August.

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