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Film / The Hurt Locker

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"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
Chris Hedges

A 2008 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow that chronicles the lives of three U.S. soldiers in Iraq: Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). They make up an explosives ordnance disposal team (essentially a bomb squad). Guy Pearce appears in a cameo role early on.

The film is done in the same vein as Generation Kill and has a minor amount of jitter cam for flavor. It does not address the ever-controversial politics of the war, instead focusing on the day-to-day lives of the characters.

The Hurt Locker was selected for preservation for National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2020.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Ace: James. He's good at everything that has to do with defusing bombs.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The sniper stand-off. Fantastic not just for the scene itself, but because it's a quiet drama scene that still involves armed combat, simmering with tension.
    • Sanborn's Heroic BSoD scene is the more traditional variety.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The film ends with James happily returning to Iraq for another 365 days.
  • Anyone Can Die: Invoked, what with the movie's random killing off of major actors, but it doesn't actually follow through on killing off any of the main characters.
  • Armor Is Useless: You're in close proximity to a bomb. If it goes off, regardless of range, you're going to be maimed. This is why James' predecessor died, despite being a ways away from the bomb. James actually invokes it at one point, ditching his suit to more easily work on a bomb that is the size of the car trunk it's placed in; there's no point to wearing it in the situation.
    • However, the armor proves NOT to be useless when James fails to disarm the bomb that's been strapped to the unfortunate civilian. He doesn't get far enough away before the explosion to avoid getting blasted from his feet and pelted with debris, but he does survive.
  • Artistic License – Military: Actual Iraq War veterans found the movie absurdly unrealistic, and below are a few of the reasons:
    • The EOD technicians behave recklessly around bombs all the time, ignoring numerous standard safety precautions. From unearthing a buried bomb by pulling on a wire which might easily be part the trigger mechanism, to running back to a bomb that is about to be safely detonated to pick up a completely replaceable pair of gloves.
    • James keeping a piece from every bomb he disarms would be illegal, since those are evidence that should go to be analyzed in an effort to determine the source of the bomb.
    • The EOD team throughout the movie operate by themselves and perform functions beyond their assigned role, while in reality they would at the very least have a regular infantry unit with them for support and security at all times while on the field.
    • When Colonel Cambridge goes outside the wire and accompanied the team on a patrol, he is left alone when encountering Iraqi civilians. With as high a rank as his, he would have several other teams providing security JUST for his presence alone. Making his death scene all the more ridiculous.
    • There are two people on the EOD team who are apparently also qualified snipers. While this is technically possible, it would require at least two years of training and a convoluted career path. (For example, you would first need to qualify as a sniper from another combat role and then re-train as EOD. It is not possible to qualify as a sniper from an EOD role.)
    • James heads out of the the military base at night in civilian clothes to track down a person he suspects to be a bombmaker, carrying a gun, all on his own without telling anyone. This is such a Cowboy Cop stunt that it alone should get him into court martial.
  • Badass Crew: They gather around stuff that can blow up you, me, and everyone. Bravo EOD team is badass, without question.
  • Broken Ace: Besides defusing bombs, James fails at everything else - soldiering, socialization, investigation, returning to civilian life... He even fails at jobs related to defusing bombs, like breaking locks on a bomb.
  • Bounty Hunter: The Private Military Contractor group captured two heavily wanted terrorists prior to the film's beginning and are about to collect the bounty. They took the fugitives alive, but have no hesitation over shooting them when they try to escape, as the bounty is dead or alive.
  • Cold Sniper: Sanborn, or at least he tries to be. Given that his MOS doesn't involve sniping human targets and the extra environmental and stress factors involved therein, he improvises pretty well.
  • The Collector of the Strange: The collection of detonation fuses of the various bombs James has disarmed over his career, which he keeps in his locker. It's the movie's eponymous Hurt Locker, though there isn't an actual Title Drop.
  • Colonel Kilgore: James. It's so bad that he willingly goes back to Iraq for another 365 days at the end of the film.
  • Covers Always Lie: You see that "Call of Duty"-esque battle in the title picture? This is not that kind of war movie. And that soldier in the picture isn't even in the movie!
  • Death by Cameo: Guy Pearce (Sergeant Thompson) and Ralph Fiennes.
  • Deconstruction: Of Middle-Eastern war movies. In most war movies, battles are epic and climactic. In The Hurt Locker, one of the battles was long, drawn out, and the heroes didn't do anything outside of "wait for the Sniper to leave." Usually, in a war movie, the heroes confront a Big Bad who has been behind the conflict they're in. Not only do they not find and confront the villain, but James' attempt to search him out is laughable at best. And also, while the heroes usually perform heroic feats in war movies like disarming a bomb, the last bomb defusal was a complete failure, due to the bomb having unbreakable locks.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Sgt. Thompson played by Guy Pearce. He's killed in the first scene and replaced by the real protagonist, James.
  • Demolitions Expert: All members of the EOD team, but James in particular.
  • Desk Jockey: Colonel Cambridge. A Justified Trope, in that he's a counselor. He finally gets out once to try and help Eldridge, who is on the edge, but gets blown to pieces.
  • Face Death with Dignity: When the victim of the film's climactic bomb realizes that there's nothing more that can be done, he stops begging for help, closes his eyes, and starts praying in his final moments.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Initially, James and Sanborn do not get along well. Sanborn even contemplates half-jokingly the possibility to kill James and to Make It Look Like an Accident. After fighting on the same side, they become friends and they have a party together.
  • Foreshadowing: Eldridge saying "I don't like to get shot".
  • Friendship Moment: After they survive the battle in the desert, James, Sanborn and Eldridge have a rowdy, alcohol-fueled party - complete with shirtless wrestling.
  • Friend to All Children: James befriends a kid selling pirated DVDs who calls himself Beckham and loves his infant son, whom he plays and converses, before he goes back to Iraq at the end of the movie.
  • Glory Hound: James, to an extent. Sanborn contemplates killing him for it.
  • Harmful to Minors: The body bomb. It's explained the insurgents kill children and strap their corpses with IEDs. Pleasant.
  • Hero of Another Story: The Private Military Contractor team capturing some terrorists to claim the bounty on them could have been a film of its own, but they only appear briefly, after their adventure is nearly concluded.
  • Heroic BSoD: Experienced by all three characters to varying degrees. Obviously, it's a war film.
    • James is obviously on the edge and suffering from one when he is placed in Bravo. He gets worse when he thinks a kid he befriended got killed by the insurgents, Colonel Cambridge gets killed, Eldridge gets hurt by his hand in a poorly planned revenge mission he came up with, and then when he is unable to save a man trapped in a bomb vest and nearly dies from the blast as well.
    • Sanborn holds it together longer, but he finally breaks down when watching James' carefree recklessness reminds him of his own mortality, and that no one but his parents would miss him or care he was gone since he doesn't have a son to remember him like James does.
    • Eldridge could be the poster-boy for this trope; he suffers a minor but long-lasting BSOD when he fails to make a shot that would've saved Sergeant Thompson, prompting Cambridge to come see him regularly. He finds Cambridge to be a nice guy and genuinely helpful, but comments that Cambridge suffers from a case of good intentions, and that he can only help to a point as long as he's behind a desk and unable to relate to actual combat experience. This causes Cambridge to join the team on a run, where he is killed by an IED; needless to say, Eldridge doesn't react well to seeing the man who's helped him get through his tough time blown to pieces, and the fact that it's technically his own fault certainly doesn't help. And then he's nearly abducted by insurgents, but even saved, has a gunshot wound and six months of physical therapy to look forward to before he can walk again. His reaction to the final event involves much more outright anger than the other problems, but the extent to which he's broken is no less obvious for the lack of tears.
  • I Choose to Stay: The film ends with James happily returning to the EOD team for another 365 day rotation.
  • Ignored Expert: Sanborn has been a bomb disposal expert in a war zone for far longer than James, and is constantly advising James about the safest way to conduct business, but is ignored at almost every turn.
  • Instant Expert: While there's nothing inherently wrong with Sanborn and James knowing how to operate a Barrett .50-cal rifle, Sanborn being able to just pick up the rifle and make precision shots at very long range with a weapon he hasn't zeroed is a stretch. It is possible that he just happens to have the same zero as the previous owner, but it's extremely unlikely due to the wide range of physiological differences between shooters.
  • Ironic Echo: When Sanborn and Eldridge consider killing James in what would look like accident, Eldridge says that "all they'd find would be his helmet". When Cambridge steps on a bomb, all they find left of him is ... his helmet.
  • Jitter Cam: Not only does it shake, but it keeps zooming in and out at whipping velocities.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: James, after the nighttime market bombing. Sanborn and Eldridge call him on it, but as he outranks them there's nothing they can do.
  • Let's Split Up, Gang!: Ends up with Eldridge getting shot, his thighbone fractured in nine places, and him being (rightfully) extremely angry at James for chasing after imaginary insurgents for his "adrenaline fix" and almost getting dragged away by real insurgents as a result.
  • Married to the Job: James.
  • Meaningful Name: Colonel Cambridge, a highly educated but out-of-touch psychiatrist who spends most of his time doing desk work. Also, William James, for whom bomb disarmament seems to be a variety of religious experience.
  • Mildly Military: James wouldn't get away with the crap he pulls, but seeing as his "Company" is woefully understaffed and he's the one in charge, he does.
  • Military Maverick: This film works as a deconstruction of this trope. James' unorthodox and reckless tactics nearly get everyone killed multiple times (especially early on in the movie), and seem shocking rather than cool and badass. The toll it takes on his sanity seems to be quite high.
  • Mood Whiplash: There's a scene where Eldridge, in the midst of being med-evaced, curses James out with great bitterness for getting him shot, and then immediately has a big smile and brotherly words for Sanborn. With no pause in between.
    • Cambridge awkwardly forcing some civilians to move their stuff, then awkwardly waving them goodbye in an almost comical scene. Then he explodes.
  • Morality Pet: Beckham, for James.
  • No Name Given: "Beckham" is obviously not the real name of the soccer playing street urchin, who took his Self-Applied Nickname from the famous British soccer player.
  • No Ending: Days Left in Delta Company's Rotation: 365. Open to interpretation; could be a happy ending, since James is doing what he loves and is saving others from the bombs, could be a Downer Ending, because he's lost himself in war. Could be seen as a combo of both too and thus, a Bittersweet Ending.
  • Not-So-Small Role: Subverted to keep an Anyone Can Die mood, as several easily recognizable people die: major actors Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce have less than 10 minutes screen time each, and both Fiennes and Pearce die in said short appearances.
  • Only Sane Man: Sanborn, who has to deal with the reckless Sgt. James and the traumatized Specialist Eldridge.
  • Outrun the Fireball: Tragically and realistically averted. Sergeant Thompson tries to run out of the bomb's killzone, but he doesn't get far enough. Unusual for this trope, the concussive force of the bomb kills him rather than the fireball. James does this as well with the man in the suicide bomb vest, but gets far enough away to survive, simply being knocked to the ground by the blast.
  • Overt Operative: Deconstructed for the terrible idea trying to act like 007 in reality is; when James attempts this to find information on the body bombers, he doesn't just fail, he fails spectacularly, with punctuation.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The plot is triggered by the death of Sergeant Thompson and his replacement by Sergeant First Class William James.
  • Present-Day Past: The movie is ostensibly set in 2004, but there's Xbox 360s, YouTube is name dropped, and the soldiers are wearing the ACU.
  • Private Military Contractors: Ralph Fiennes and his team of bounty hunters. They die.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: James and Sanborn
  • Reliably Unreliable Guns: Averted. The protagonists are called upon to fire a .50 Barrett rifle, which jams due to blood in the magazine. The rounds are removed from the magazine, individually cleaned, breech-loaded and fired as normal. It's unlikely that fresh blood on its own would have caused such a misfire, but tiny bits of flesh (which would) are implied to be mixed in with it.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Beckham is presumed to be dead after James finds a blood covered body of a little boy that the bombers killed to put a bomb in his body. After a failed Roaring Rampage of Revenge, Jmaes finds out that the kid is very much alive when he approaches him a few days later; the traumatized James is too upset to respond, so he leaves in a Humvee without saying anything.
  • Riding into the Sunset: Evoked by the cinematography, but cruelly subverted.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Subverted. James tries to go on one after he thinks Beckham dies. His actions get him nowhere except confusing a local teacher and pissing off his wife, and very nearly in trouble with the guards at his base. The second time he tries it in the aftermath of a particularly vicious bombing run on the market, he nearly gets Eldridge killed/captured.
  • Room Full of Crazy: His fellow soldiers react to James' collection of bomb fuses this way. More like a "box full of crazy", but the principle's the same. They're all drunk, however.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Guy Pearce's character is in the film only to set the mood early and to explain why James has transferred into the squad.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: All three protagonists: James already is one when he appears, Eldridge is one from the second scene and onwards, and while Sanborn holds out, until later in the film, he falls into this too.
  • Shower of Angst: James takes one with his full uniform and equipment on after the gun battle in which Eldridge is wounded
  • Spiritual Successor: James Cameron called it "this generation's Platoon"
  • Street Urchin: Beckham is an Iraqi boy who spends his time on the streets selling DVDs to American soldiers to make some money.
  • Survivor's Guilt: Expected, what with it being a war film. Eldridge is this in trumps, as he holds himself responsible for Thompson's death, and later feels the same when Cambridge is killed with an IED; since he requested Cambridge observe what they do, Eldridge rushes into the dust cloud where Cambridge was and starts calling his name in the hope he's alive.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: After co-operating to kill the sniper, James passes a container of juice to Sanborn before drinking from it himself. The team finally starts to bond together after this.
  • Thrill Seeker: It becomes clear to his men that James takes a lot of unnecessary risks, entirely for the hit of adrenaline.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Sanborn and Eldridge contemplate "accidentally" detonating an explosive to kill James, but decide against it.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Subverted; James accidently shoots Eldridge in the leg when he saved the latter from being kidnapped by insurgents. Later, when Eldridge is about to be airlifted out of Iraq, he cusses and rants at James for shooting him and putting him in the situation in the first place. However, he briefly thanks James for saving his life during his rant before going back to chewing him out again.
  • War Crime Subverts Heroism: An officer insists that an Iraqi prisoner of war is "not going to make it." When the scene cuts away, a gunshot is audible.
  • War Is Hell: Though James would disagree.
  • Wire Dilemma: Averted, every bomb has a single wire running from the explosive to the detonator; the hard part is finding the detonator.
    • Subverted, in the scene where James drags a whole nest of artillery shells out of the road by pulling on the wires. a 155mm shell weighs about 45kg. A short while before, he is shown removing the same detonators using his finger and thumb.
    • Also lampshaded in a poster.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Eldridge SNAPS at James after the failed attempt to go find the market bombers. Rightfully so, since he's heavily wounded and possibly crippled.