I see a lot of movies in a year. Hell, I probably see more movies in a month than a lot of people do in twelve. But every now and then, one that I should have caught slips past my checkpoint and executes a successful evasion. Such was the case with The Hurt Locker. You’d think a film that won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, would be immune from my critical eye and TTAG’s weapons handling critique. But you’d be wrong. I don’t care how many awards you’ve won, because there’s no naked gold man statue on my shelf. Okay, so there is, but it isn’t a Hurt Locker Oscar.

The Hurt Locker follows an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq during the year 2004 – a pretty active year in terms of things blowing up and general chaos. Billed by many critics as a realistic view of the modern combat, it’s hard not to approach the film without excitement. So many have enjoyed it and so many have praised its realism.

The EOD team consists of ‘wild man’ SFC William James (reckless hot-shot bomb tech), Sergeant Sanborn (level-headed controller) and battle-weary, post-traumatic stress disorder-in-waiting Specialist Eldridge (gun shy spotter). The film lacks a coherent narrative. There’s no “day in the life” look at an EOD team operating in Iraq. No over-arching ‘bad guy’. No race against the clock. The film ends with a bang, but story-wise, it’s a a bit of a dud.

That said, Director Kathryn Bigelow has crafted a tense, visually striking film that’s populated with plenty of perfectly crafted set pieces. As you’d expect, Bigelow’s talent for action excels in instances when things go boom. Through a mixture of slow motion and a variety of close-ups, you get a real sense of just how Earth shaking a here-comes-the-BOOM can be. She makes excellent use of slow-motion photography, from shell casings falling to the ground to a frantic dash away from a bomb that can’t be defused. The Best Director award certainly wasn’t given to an undeserving candidate.

No complaints on the acting front. Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (James) and the rest of the cast are entirely watchable. But there are no explosive performances, no gut-wrenching moments when you feel completely submersed in the characters’ world. Blame the script. Yes, the film won an Oscar for screen writing. But The Hurt Locker is an incredible movie in the wrong way.

Wise in the ways of PR, the United States military aids and abets a film if they agree with its representation of the U.S. military. If the script meets their approval—and they’re not as gung-ho as you might imagine—Uncle Sam will provide men, machinery, transportation, expert advise and “action” on the taxpayer’s dime. The Hurt Locker didn’t make the grade.

The military took issue with the number of fictional soldiers experiencing PTSD, the lone-wolf mentality of SFC James, and the way in which the three-man EOD team operates.

Now, I’m not a soldier (moved to Hollywood instead). But I watch the Military channel; even an armchair warrior can identify and understand Uncle Sam’s complaints.

The EOD team in The Hurt Locker often operate on their own, just three men out in the wild, sometimes while infantry are hiding behind walls. This particular team resists using communications gear and often heads out on their own on hunt-kill missions. Not likely, say the experts. Not realistic. Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams do a dangerous job. BUT they do it as part of a wider team that helps make he site as safe as possible. As one actual EOD put it, “if our job is exciting, we’re doing it wrong.”

Viewing the film with an eye towards realism, you begin to notice Hurt Locker plays out like an ’80’s action movie. The renegade hero and his side kicks buck authority, get yelled at by stiff-lipped superiors, and run off into the night on personal quests of vengeance. Instead of the gritty, realistic film world that word-of-mouth lead me to expect, I got something more akin to a PC Top Gun on the ground.

At one point, a commanding officer informs a medic and an infantryman that an insurgent with a survivable wound “won’t make it.” Moments later, off screen, a single gunshot. For a movie mostly described apolitical, that sounds a whole lot like an Army officer ordering the execution of a wounded man and a soldier carrying it out immediately, in front of at least a dozen witnesses. Has it ever happened? Maybe. Is that a standard policy implemented without discussion or repercussions? No.

Renegade James’ motivation is equally inexplicable. For two hours, we watch a “do or die” kinda guy tilting strongly towards the latter. His death wish seems entirely personal.Once stateside, James explains how important bomb techs are and how he must go back. And he does. If James considers his job so serious, why doesn’t he address it seriously? His reckless, self-endangering behavior doesn’t make sense.

The film portrays the look of the soldiers and their weapons accurately—even if they use them in unrealistic ways. For example, when a taxi breaks a checkpoint, SFC James threatens the driver a Beretta M9. He discharges a few rounds to the ground, then shoots out a windshield. In the real world, someone breaking a checkpoint like that would have been ripped to shreds far sooner, rather than just being detained later.

On display quite frequently: the M4A1 carbine. The new mainstay of our troops on deployment sees some random action in the background when a larger group of soldiers is involved in the scene. It’s main time to shine is when the gun-shy Eldridge is roused to action by an enemy in the distances, engaging a target that’s sneaked up on their six.

As you’d expect for a film about explosives, there isn’t a ton of gun play. The firearms highlight of the film comes when the team stumbles upon a group of British contractors out in the middle of seemingly nowhere. The contractors are all armed with AK variants, most likely AKMS’s, outfitted with tactical rails and other cool goodies. The ubiquitous Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun is put into play by a Brit with no effective concept of “target acquisition.”  We call that suppression fire, boys and girls.

This same scene includes a sniper battle. The good guys are armed with the massive Barret M107 .50 caliber sniper system. The insurgents sport the Romanian FPK sniper rifle (a design similar to the infamous Dragunov). Guess who wins.

Because there isn’t much gun play in the film, I was impressed, for the most part, with its realism. Up till this point. Once this battle started, my fingers were a flurry with notes on what was wrong and why.

When the team meet up with a group of heavily armed and experienced contractors, of course the EOD team takes the lead in both sniping and winning a firefight. My problem: presentation. The highly trained contractors fire from the hip at times, or with their folding stocks, well, folded, giving them an unstable weapons system—especially when engaging targets that are hundreds of meters away.

When a shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger rampages through a jungle firing from the hip, we know this is entertainment, in the real world, that sort shit will get you killed. When you want to hit what you’re aiming at, you get that gun to your shoulder. Otherwise, you might as well be throwing rocks.

When Sanborn gets his mitts on the Barret M107, one must ask why a former intelligence officer and current EOD member knows how to use the .50cal effectively at such distances. (Helmets off why?) He misses a stationary target by at least four meters, but then somehow hits a running target dead on two seconds later.

On the villain front, the enemy sniper is using a 7.62x54mm rifle, a round that has vastly inferior ballistic performance compared to the .50 caliber. The deadliest sniper is also standing in exposed in a window while shooting. Hitting targets.

First, a good sniper doesn’t hang out of a window to shoot. He’ll back up a few feet inside the structure so he’s not plainly visible. This sniper is also shooting extremely accurately—using an inferior weapon and an inferior stance. Clearly, he is the greatest shot in the world. But he still doesn’t know to not hang out of a window. Conversely, remember that Sergeant Sanborn is lying prone, with a superior round, using a bipod. And still misses by four meters.

The Hurt Lockers biggest firearm faux pas: the jammed M107. The previous operator is killed and bleeds onto the weapon. This blood goes into the magazine. Immediately the bolt action rifle fails to properly chamber ammunition and “jams.” The nerve-case Eldridge has to “spit and rub” to clean the blood off of the rounds so the gun will work.

Blood is a liquid. It won’t jam a gun if it ends up in the magazine. Rounds are chambered with great force; it takes more than some fresh, wet blood to stop that from happening. But even if I give you that caveat and some how the blood is like tar, it doesn’t “jam” from a failure to chamber a round. That’s called a “failure to feed.” And it wouldn’t be caused by blood.

Here’s the work-around in case you’ve ever dropped your box magazine into a tar pit and have some shooting to do. Insert the rounds by hand. Take them out of the magazine, open the bolt, insert the round, and release the bolt. If time is of the essence, you can hand feed a semi-automatic rifle, no problem at all.

So in this one scene, almost everything that happens with a firearm has some Hollywood magic dust sprinkled on it. I’m no fan.

While I didn’t enjoy the film all that much, I can see why others did. Many of the scenes have a big dose of fright night tension. Viewers who aren’t avid shooters and don’t watch The Military Channel will enjoy it more than those who are and do. The gun ignorant who think the army really does have some run-and-gun cowboy shit going on, will consider The Hurt Locker a realistic drama. But it isn’t. As a primer on how to be an effective soldier or realistically engage in a long distance firefight, it’s a damp squib.

6 Responses to BangBang Cinema: The Hurt Locker

  1. In terms of 'realism' the movie is laughable. Watching it with my wife (who has never served in the military, never been around the military and knows very little about it) even she could spot the gaping inconsistencies and unrealistic bits.

    As for me, I spent 23 years in the Army and served in OIF in 2004 (although not in Iraq) as well as Afghanistan in 2003 and all I could say is: Now I understand why my dad (who served 4 tours in Vietnam) won't watch Vietnam war movies. It's hard to relax and enjoy a movie when you see so many things that are just jarringly wrong.

    On the plus side, it is fast paced and visually spectacular. I thought the movie did a good job of conveying the overwhelming sense of danger, and the fact that a shot could come from any direction at any time.

    The David Morse bit where they let a prisoner die is the reason the Army pulled out of the production, BTW. That whole scene seemed tacked on and forced.

    Overall I'd give it maybe 3 stars out of 5.

  2. I agree that this movies' gun use was far from realistic. But the pace and the bomb disposal scenes were entertaining.

    I agree that the British contractor / sniper scene was weak. Just once I'd like to see an honest sniper scene with some range estimation and bullet drop issues. Not to mention the standard Hollyweird trope where bullets magically hit the scope cross hairs all the time.

    • The reason he takes his helmet off is for better visibility on the scope, instead of having the brim of the helmet interfere with his vision. Also with his first shot they don’t know the windage so it makes sense that he would miss wide left like that and then be able to adjust. His third shot is barely low on the guy out in the open and he was lying down presenting a small target, very hard to hit. It’s actually easier to hit a larger moving target than a smaller stationary target because your elevation compensation (by far the hardest part of hitting long range shots) doesn’t have to be as precise. The fourth shot does give me some doubt as we are supposed to believe he is an expert marksman and he misses low by 5 feet when he already has his range known and dialed in, but this could be explained by a bad propellant burn if that specific round had a flaw. Overall the scene is extremely accurate save for the the whole blood causing a jam, but they would have wanted to get the blood off anyway because it would have caused build-up in the barrel thus reducing accuracy.

  3. Wow yeah chill out. I dont want to watch a documentary. I have and to tell you the truth, in them , often you see a similar scene as the one in the desert. Marines firing at nothing, in many directions and really no sign of recieving fire. One shot comes within a mile of a Marine position and every one exhausts their ammo. What would be considerably more action packed is if we saw an iraq war genre movie from the perspective of the Iraqi Insurgents or Taliban. Then my friends we would be seeing some real chaos, fire and brimstone. In all of the time the sister wars have been on the go, the Allies have barley had to shoot at anything save to keep their weapons warm and daily driven.

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