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'Hurt Locker' best war film since 'Saving Private Ryan'

The Hurt Locker

(R)

4 out of 4 stars

Since the war in Iraq began six years ago, studios big and small have attempted, with no success, to produce a movie that could simultaneously be insightful, engaging, and for lack of a better word, entertaining.

Although it is decidedly downbeat and grim, "The Hurt Locker" manages to leave the viewer with a feeling of being wide-awake and thoroughly alive. It is the best war movie since "Saving Private Ryan" and the only film set in Iraq worth watching.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about the movie is that it was not only directed by a woman, but by one who has finally delivered the type of devastatingly near-perfect film everyone has been expecting from her for years.

Getting close on a couple of occasions ("Point Break," "Strange Days") and missing wildly on others ("Near Dark," "K-19"), Kathryn Bigelow has always shown promise and "The Hurt Locker" lands her squarely in a class with Steven Spielberg, John Ford and Howard Hawks. It wouldn't be going out on a limb to say she has forever altered the landscape of the war movie genre with this effort.

Bigelow's first triumph was in casting two relative unknowns as her leads and handing out cameo roles to three mostly well-established veterans (who should remain unidentified). This decision flies directly in the face of typical mainstream convention. The actors who you don't immediately recognize are supposed to come and go and are generally sacrificed in order to make the bigger stars shine more brightly.

Like "Saving Private Ryan," "The Hurt Locker" achieves the almost Herculean feat of being politically indifferent. There's no misplaced homage to patriotism or the presenting of an enemy with typical evil flourishes or embellishments. This is a movie about what makes soldiers tick. Most fight to survive in order to return home as soon as possible. A few scant others survive in order to fight as long they possibly can.

Three-man unit commander and point guard Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is counting down the days when his tour is done and he can return home. After losing a team member, the grounded Sanborn is partnered with Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb specialist who possesses the steady fearlessness of John Wayne and the wingnut bravado of John Belushi. As impressed as Sanborn is with James' skills, he's understandably sure his brash new underling's perpetual tempting of fate will lead to their collective ruin.

Techno junkies are in for a real treat. Bigelow's movie is one of the first to include footage shot with a new camera that captures a mind-blowing 10,000 frames per second. In a scene that more resembles a moonwalk than a desert war situation, Bigelow bests the latest 3-D technology by throwing the audience into a scenario that is closer to real life than they might have ever imagined - or might have wanted. It sets up the tone for other equally impressive technical revelations that will do the same.

This movie has it all. It's technically superior, involving without being manipulative, makes non-judgmental statements about war and best of all places the audience smack dab in the middle of an existence few of us could ever fathom.

A scene in the middle of the film goes far in explaining the nebulous title and snaps our backbones and mindsets into the upright and locked position in an effort to understand that our warriors are where they are not because they always want to be, but because they feel they have to be. They stand on a metaphorical wall and we are all the safer and better because of their efforts, politics notwithstanding.

We should thank them and Kathryn Bigelow. (Summit Entertainment)