Much ado about the big boom

Hollywood

Much ado about the big boom

Easy to consume:‘The Hurt Locker’

If one has been raised on a heavy duty diet of Hollywood action flicks spanning the 1980s to the mid-90s (the holy trilogy of Schwarzenegger-Stallone-Willis, the lesser pantheon of Van Damme-Seagal and for the discerning sophisticate — Kurt Russell), explosions meant one thing and one thing only. A brilliant surge of orange buffeting across every inch of the screen whose sole, explicit purpose was to allow the bonafide beefcake hero to swagger in sexy slow-motion against the flames — bleeding, sweating and brooding with a look in his eyes that says,“I’ve done what I was born to do and I did it with style to spare.” Collateral damage be damned! 

It was every boy’s fantasy. Stand him in front of the mirror and everything behind him in the reflection would go up in dramatic flare. 

After watching the much feted The Hurt Locker, the last and loudest being the Oscar pat, if there is a concession that can be made, it is that director Kathryn Bigelow knows her genre conventions well. Five minutes into the film and the most prestigious name in the cast winds up in a body bag. An impressive shorthand for — ‘there are no heroes’.
Bigelow has always been at her best operating within the well-worn rhythms of the established Hollywood genre. She belongs to a tradition that includes Sam Peckinpah, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, early Spielberg and Cameron among others and lately, Paul Greengrass of the Bourne films, who delight in ever-so-slightly elbowing their way through the established Hollywood clichés of their times while giving a mildly new yet wholly exciting spin to the norm.

Her best film, Point Break, is at the fundamentals, another tale of a cop going undercover to infiltrate a gang of high-profile thieves. But add to the mix some serious surfing, Zen Buddhism, dead US presidents, strange and memorable dialogue, terrific action set-pieces, an ambiguous ending, and the affairs at hand become at once ridiculous and sublime.

Her other successful films — The Loveless, a biker flick; Blue Steel, a rookie cop movie; Near Dark, a vampire film — remain strictly conservative yet somewhat revisionist. The Hurt Locker ticks the same box. Bigelow has traded her 80s action tropes for the kinetic faux-verite style popularised by the Bourne films but essentially, it remains about as fresh as Dirty Harry does Baghdad. 

Unlike previous Hollywood attempts at capturing the war in Iraq which wallowed in quietitudes (In the Valley of Elah) and much liberal hand-wringing (Lions for Lambs), The Hurt Locker is a straight shooter. It’s frenetically-paced, easy to consume and at its best, a lean mean thrill machine anchored by the superior cool exuded by Jeremy Renner as the protagonist Sergeant William James, team leader of a bomb disposal squad, an American hero about as old as they come straight down from John Wayne, but with that little Bigelow twist.

And as to the question, does it bring anything new to the debate on the war in Iraq or conflict in general or even the human condition? No.

The raging debate over The Hurt Locker seems to be Bigelow’s insistence that her film is defiantly ‘apolitical’. What one must be reminded of is that Don Siegel had the same thing to say about Dirty Harry. The best thing that happened to Mark Boal’s screenplay, mired as it is in clichés about the war, army and the Iraqis, is that it found a shrewd and wholly capable executrix in Bigelow.

It is her sure hand that grips and guides the film to the satisfaction that it seems to have achieved what it set out to do, which ultimately turns out to be not much. It was never meant to be the kind of film that the supposed weight of the Oscar campaign and victory has imposed upon it. 

Brian De Palma’s angry meta-collage Redacted is still hands down, the best film on the US occupation of Iraq. To observe a female director chronicling a platoon while etching complex male dynamics, opt for Claire Denis’ beguiling Beau Travail. If it’s bomb disposal you want to watch, go for the genre-bending Powell and Pressburger classic The Small Back Room. And if it’s an earful of adrenalin you seek, Universal Soldier 3: Regeneration is still playing in select theatres. It’s almost reassuring to know that the kids are still at it.

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