For the record, I haven’t seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen yet, though I should be able to change that statement by weekend’s conclusion. Reports are online now saying that Michael Bay’s gargantuan robots-smashing-shit-in-visually-incoherent-ways sequel earned somewhere in the $16 million range last night alone, just off of midnight showings. Which is a pretty staggering tally, even if its only fourth place all-time now and didn’t have enough muscle to strongarm The Dark Knight‘s midnight-showing intake of $18.6 mil out of the champion’s throne. The Transformers success isn’t shocking, though, at all. Any 11-year-old kid could’ve predicted that the film would be a hit; Nostradamus you need not have been.
If the onlslaught of scathing reviews are a fair indication, however, the dollars earned are all bad. Highway robbery. Between the film’s apparent racial undertones (two robots, Mudflap and Skids, have been nicknamed “Sambots” by bloggers for their blatantly-stereotypical personalities) and overall lack of story and/or point, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is running fulltime jack-moves on ticket-buyers.
The solution to this is simple, albeit unlikely and fantastical—–seek out a theater debuting Kathryn Bigelow‘s dynamite The Hurt Locker this weekend and shell out your scratch on that over excessive Megan Fox camera-fucking. Easily one of the year’s best films thus far, The Hurt Locker is also the best War on Terror-themed film to date, a taut, powerful, painfully human examination of just how desperate and detached the modern-day battlefield can make our troops. Sadly, if not you reading this post right now, there’s virtually no way you’d know that this film even exists. I haven’t seen one commercial on my idiot-box yet, and the only websites that seem to feature ads for this one are the niche “older, seasoned movie lover” blogs that are already read by the only people who’ll ultimately pay to see The Hurt Locker anyway. What a crock—–Bigelow’s masterwork deserves so much better. [Continued after the jump]
Set in Baghdad, 2004, The Hurt Locker drops audiences into the intensely-terrifying world of the soldiers designated to disarm terrorist/enemy-planted bombs. Staff Sergeant Will James (played stunningly by Jeremy Renner, a performance unquestionably worthy of Best Actor recognition) is one of these Tech Specialists, a loose cannon of a desensitized fighter who receives back-up from Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, also stellar here). Routinely, James endangers his life and those of his teammates with reckless behavior; he’s a huge liability, jeopardizing tktk’s and tktk’s 39 remaining days of duty with his disobedient bad-boy antics. Mark Boal’s script doesn’t treat Renner’s “Will James” as a villain, though. He’s just as sympathetic as his comrades, perhaps even more so due to the heart that we know beats readily within him. His interactions with a soccer-loving Baghdad youngster, coined “Beckham,” show that he’s made of softer stuff than meets the eye, and the grotesquely-tragic conclusion of this subplot provides Renner with a heartwrenching opportunity to elicit ample compassion.
The Hurt Locker is unlike any other movie of its ilk because it doesn’t depend on such a distinction. Bigelow and her platoon could’ve replaced Baghdad with Vietnam and the themes would’ve remained intact. This is film about living, breathing people, not a shameless ploy to drum up anti-Iraq-War sentiments or an overbearing “Our soldiers need our sympathy” request disguised as an Academy Award-baiting production. The dialogue riffs between Renner and Mackie are expertly written and acted to-the-tee. Bigelow’s use of a lo-fi, 28 Days Later-esque look gives the film a you’re-right-there-in-the-‘shit’-with-them aesthetic.
There’s one crucial element here, however, that’d make any viewer hesitantly choosing this over Transformers more than happy, and that’s how white-knuckle-intense The Hurt Locker plays. It’s far from an over-talker, packed end to end with pulsating action sequences. The task of disarming a bomb that can wipe out an entire neighborhood sounds horrifying and insane enough as it is, but Bigelow elevates the pressure-cooking with circling camera angles and sweaty facial close-ups. Hair-raising moments are played out in real time, rather than chopped down to quick-hitting edits. Midway into the film, our three leads venture into a desert and are stopped by Americans masked as locals, but they’re unexpected ally encounter is disrupted by a sniper’s unseen gunfire. Forcing our heroes to engage in a bit of the old back-and-forth, and the whole scene becomes a cat-and-mouse game by way of bullets. It’s attention-strangling stuff.
In many ways, The Hurt Locker is not only one of the year’s best overall films, but hands down 2009’s best released-up-until-today thriller. Parallels to Francis Ford Coppola’s humanly-scary Apocalypse Now aren’t overzealous bullshit—-a setpiece taking place at night under the lighting of bonfire blazes practically pull the Col. Kurtz references out of your throat. There’s suffocating paranoia, delivered with subtle touches (the distrusting, scheming looks given by scowling natives). And then there’s the climactic final showdown between Renner and a suicide bomber having second thoughts about his final day at the “office.” The father of four begs for his life, pleading with Renner’s “James” to disarm the multiple bombs on his body, but it’s a mission impossible. You can see the frustration turn into piercing remorse on Renner’s face, an emotional stinger that brings The Hurt Locker‘s duality-of-man message sliding into home plate.
I’ve been trying to hardest to find a fault, a minor nitpick, to attack The Hurt Locker with, in fear that this post would read as some sort of studio plant, something I was paid to write by Bigelow herself (as if Theater of Mine has even one-hundredth of the pull that such a pay-off would require). Fact of the matter is, though, that this is an amazing film, plain as Jane. Bigelow has always shown a sharp knack for intelligent action, from Point Break to Strange Days, but this is her crowning achievement. Even better than 1987’s Near Dark, Bigelow’s superior vampire alternative that Twilight loyalists should be watching instead of “R-Pat.” If the Academy has any collective testicles, they’ll award The Hurt Locker with at least one nomination come early 2010. Doesn’t matter what the hell said nod is….give the Key Grip a shot at one of those Oscar statues. Something. Anything.
Today’s announcement that next year’s Oscars will go back to the old approach of nominating a whopping ten Best Picture nominess feels overcrowded and cheap, but maybe it’ll result in The Hurt Locker making the cut. If nominations were announced tomorrow, this would be the obvious recipient of the trophy; anything less would be heinous dribble. If Wall-E couldn’t do it earlier this year, than Up shouldn’t, and that’d leave The Hurt Locker in the victorious clear.
Better instincts lead me to believe that The Hurt Locker won’t receive a single awards shout-out, of course. An equally-irritating reality sharing sitting side-by-side in Unfairville with the fact that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will earn more dough at the AMC in Times Square alone this weekend than The Hurt Locker will rake in nationwide.
The saddest part is: arrogant blowhard Michael Bay himself would admit that The Hurt Locker deserves your income more than his gutted cash-cow. Even he isn’t delusional enough to think the opposite, I’d hope for his soul’s sake.