By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
While many war movies stealthily preach peace, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a rare examination of combat as an addiction. Apparently not all soldiers chafe at the prospect of extra tours of duty.
Hopefully the willing aren't as reckless as Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb squad daredevil whose tactics put more lives than his own on the line. James doesn't have a death wish; he's too proficient at disarming explosive devices left by Iraqi insurgents, and too proud to leave behind a corpse admitting failure.
The drama could spring from any war but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal choose Iraq, giving an erroneous impression that The Hurt Locker is a political film. Bigelow is adept at shaping tension — one of the few women making action flicks — but soapboxing isn't her style. Neither is clarifying motivation, which The Hurt Locker could use.
Exactly why James is compelled to risk is a crater in the middle of Bigelow's otherwise exemplary film. Viewers can draw conclusions but they'll come from practically thin air. The Hurt Locker is essentially a series of deadly bombs stashed in a checklist of hiding places — a car trunk, a garbage pile, buried underground, stashed inside a body — with James pushing time limits and his comrades' patience.
Those sequences are masterfully framed and edited, stretching our nerves to the breaking point and perhaps beyond. Bigelow milks every ounce of red wire/blue wire suspense from James' various disarming assignments, effectively conveying what can go wrong at any moment. Those episodes are so thrilling, and the drama linking them so vague, that tension is the lone memorable quality of The Hurt Locker.
Yet Bigelow and Boal continually skim the surface of something deeper, with erratic results. A subplot concerning James' friendship with an Iraqi youth (Christopher Sayegh) has promise until it's emotionally defused. Ralph Fiennes and David Morse pop in apparently to embellish the film's credits, their brief screen time seems so pointless in hindsight. At least Guy Pearce uses his to enact proper bomb squad procedures that James ignores.
When the drama briefly detours stateside, the emptiness of civilian life is palpable. But that doesn't fully explain James' willingness to leave behind a loving family and the safety of home. The Hurt Locker becomes like many wars; a nerve-wracking experience without solid answers for the core question of why we're there.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.