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The Hurt Locker: A New Kind of Movie About Iraq

Locker, like the underrated Gulf War film Jarhead, is too episodic to be considered a top-notch war feature. We follow the bomb squad via one harrowing set piece after another. All the while we're kept abreast of how many days James has as an active duty soldier.

But where's the sense of thematic momentum, or even a growing appreciation for the characters beneath the camouflage?

As good as Renner is here, and his is a near star-making turn, the screenplay doesn't afford him or his co-stars enough meat to make Locker matter.

Locker director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) busies herself by crafting war sequences that don't follow conventional arcs. We get a blast of excitement followed by minutes of calm, and few of the scenes wrap in a manner that leaves audiences at ease.

One of the film's most compelling sequences finds the soldiers sipping from juice boxes while waiting out the enemy. You can practically taste the sand in their mouths as they keep their rifles trained on an enemy embankment long after the shooting has stopped.

The film also benefits from the real life soldier obituaries wrought by IEDs. Before a single frame unspools we know precisely how dangerous these hidden weapons can be.

Yet some sequences still don't register, from the search for the missing Iraqi boy to an ending that feels both inauthentic and rushed.

A few film critics blasted Jarhead for not taking partisan swipes at the current Iraq war, even though the action took place during the far less controversial Gulf War. Locker is getting a pass on this front, perhaps because of the change in administrations.

Hope and change, indeed.

Conservatives clearly have less to complain about with Locker than with most recent war pictures. That doesn't mean it's a veritable Army recruitment commercial.

The film cannot find time to depict the Iraqis as anything but bystanders, faceless citizens incapable of impressing audiences with their own humanity. An Iraqi soldier is left dead thanks to a callous decision by a U.S. superior. And the film opens with the phrase "war is a drug" emblazoned on the screen. Can't fighting for one's country be a noble choice rather than the ultimate adrenaline sport?

The Hurt Locker represents a vast improvement over Hollywood's recent war efforts. It's uncompromising in its depiction of the battlefield, often thrilling, and grants a measure of respect to the U.S. soldiers in harm's way.

But the Iraq war genre still awaits its first film classic.