Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Forget about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s already gotten clobbered by critics and it’s already made more at the box office than a dozen better movies combined. See it if you want, but there’s really nothing left to say about it, is there?
On the other hand, there’s another little action movie coming out this weekend in Los Angeles and New York. It’s not opening on 4000+ screens, but it’s pretty great and proof that you can make an action movie and still have a brain in your head.
The movie is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It tells the story of an elite bomb disposal squad working to keep the streets of Baghdad safe for Iraqis and Americans alike. It’s not strictly apolitical – I think it’s an anti-war picture in that it shows the excoriating effects of war on the men and women we ask to fight for us – but it’s not literally an anti-Iraq war picture either. It’s bigger than that and frankly better than any of a number of Iraq-themed films that have come out in the last few years.
Conventional wisdom has it that the country is tired of Iraq and that movies on the subject face an uphill climb in attracting audiences. It’s true, the batch of Iraq themed movies that have trickled through theaters since 9/11 have failed to catch on with wide audiences.
Though not literally an Iraq film, Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007) pulled in $47.5 million in the US. That’s not a bad number, but it probably didn’t even cover advertising costs on a film that cost $70 million to produce.
Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss (2008) made $10.9 million, Gavin Hood’s Rendition (2007) pulled in $9.7 million, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007) came in just shy of $6.8 million despite an Oscar nomination for Tommy Lee Jones, and Brian De Palma’s Redacted failed to make a blip on the box office radar with $65K.
An action thriller, a political thriller, two dramas and a “fictional documentary” all combined for less than what Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will make this weekend.
Does that mean movies set in or about Iraq can’t succeed? It’s a headline friendly assumption to say that America doesn’t want to have its nose rubbed in an unpopular war, but I think it’s more a case of the movies in question not being very good. The Haggis film is particularly egregious for being mediocre and earnestly moralizing at the same time. Who wants to be lectured to by the class dunce?
Here are the Metacritic scores:
Transformers is critic proof and will make gobs of cash despite it’s 37 Metacritic score, but more challenging films still need critical care and feeding if they have any hope at all at finding their audience. They certainly need to score higher than 65. With that in mind, here comes The Hurt Locker sporting a healthy 91 at Metacritic as of this writing. Here are some choice review quotes:
A.O. Scott, The New York Times
If The Hurt Locker is not the best action movie of the summer, I’ll blow up my car. The movie is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise.
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times
The Hurt Locker has the killer impact of the explosive devices that are the heart of its plot: It simply blows you apart and doesn’t bother putting you back together again. Overwhelmingly tense, overflowing with crackling verisimilitude, it’s both the film about the war in Iraq that we’ve been waiting for and the kind of unqualified triumph that’s been long expected from director Kathryn Bigelow.
Richard Corliss, Time Magazine
The Hurt Locker is a near-perfect movie about men in war, men at work. Through sturdy imagery and violent action, it says that even Hell needs heroes.
I think the critical hype actually overstates the case a little bit, but this is exactly the kind of smaller movie that could benefit by the recently expanded best picture Oscar category. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jeremy Renner turn up for best actor either way.
But don’t let critical hyperbole turn you off. This isn’t a stuffy, feel-bad message movie. It’s a movie with the intensity of an action film and the hint of arthouse credibility gained from having played the festival circuit. It’s gripping and exhaustingly suspenseful at times. It has enough bravado and thrills to satisfy any action junkie, but it also has interesting characters and the confidence to slow down and pause and drink in the horror of what’s happening to them.
A Michael Bay film is like a shark: it’s efficient and effective, but single-minded and stupid. If it stops swimming for a minute, it will die. Sharks are fine, but there are many kinds of fish in the sea. The Hurt Locker is one of them and if a fraction of the people who plan on hitting Transformers 2 this weekend pick Bigelow’s film instead, they can help prove conventional wisdom wrong.
Think about it. If you’re an action fan, you can fall in line for more of the same or you can show Hollywood that if it makes good movies, audiences will follow regardless of the subject matter.
Seriously. Go see The Hurt Locker.