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The Hurt Locker: A New Kind of Movie About Iraq

Hollywood isn't finished with the Iraq war quite yet.

The entertainment industry has spent the last six or so years spinning yarns from the deeply divisive conflict, with most efforts falling into a predictable pattern. The war was a grave mistake (Fahrenheit 9/11). The battle will rage on indefinitely (No End in Sight). Never waste an opportunity like a war to slime the troops (Redacted).

Now along comes The Hurt Locker, arguably the first Iraq war film not to wear its Code Pink colors on its sleeve. And wouldn't you know it isn't a colossal bust so far, at least in its very limited initial release.

But Hurt, for all its visceral impact, isn't a great war movie as some critics suggest, nor is it as politically neutral as its boosters would have you believe.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later) as Staff Sgt. William James, a man without fear when it comes to defusing insurgent traps.

The opening sequence, set before James enters the picture, details just how dangerous working in the bomb disposal unit can be. Defusers wear a puffy bomb suit for a modicum of protection -- think one of those silly faux sumo wrestler costumes but made from much sturdier stuff. Ultimately, no suit can save a soldier if a bomb goes off prematurely.

James teams up with Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a by-the-book soldier, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the kind of grunt who looks like he belongs behind the counter at Walgreens, not behind enemy lines.

It's hardly an original lot, and their preferred method for bonding -- aggressive wrestling and boozing -- also falls squarely in the been there, seen that category.

James brings a stoic approach to the task at hand, alienating Sanborn with his willingness to risk his life -- even when it's not necessary. Yet James gets rattled when he learns a local boy who sold him some knockoff DVDs only a few days ago may have gone missing.

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.