LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Films about the war on terror have not been high on audiences' must-see list. Yet the makers of the latest, "The Hurt Locker," hope they have the ingredients that box-office duds about Iraq and Afghanistan have lacked.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and her colleagues deliver nail-biting tension and a remarkable you-are-there feeling with "The Hurt Locker," giving viewers a real sense of the lives of bomb-defusing technicians in Baghdad.
They also tell a story from today's volunteer-military point of view, following troops who chose to go to war, the story stripped of U.S. foreign-policy critiques that made such recent war films as "Rendition," "Lions for Lambs" and "In the Valley of Elah" sound preachy.
"There's no hidden political agenda in this," said Jeremy Renner, who stars in "The Hurt Locker" as an ace bomb technician whose rash approach to the job alarms the other two members of his team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty). "We were all adamant that we wanted to tell a pretty accurate account of this interesting job, and pretty much, that's it."
Bigelow, who has directed big action thrillers such as Keanu Reeves' "Point Break" and Harrison Ford's "K-19: The Widowmaker," takes a close and claustrophobic approach here. Shot in a documentary style using handheld cameras, the film is remarkably effective at putting the audience in the heart of the suspense that goes with inching up to a bomb.
Renner stars as Sgt. William James, who takes over the team of Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Geraghty) after their beloved leader is killed in a blast. James is the opposite of his by-the-book predecessor, a cowboy so confident in his skills that he flaunts safety protocols, leaving Sanborn and Eldridge in fear of their lives.
The actors prepared for the roles by going through bomb technician training at Fort Irwin in California. Wearing a protective suit of steel and Kevlar weighing as much as 100 pounds, one of the exercises he had to practice was to move a stack of paper clips one at time to another pile 15 feet away.
Based on journalist and screenwriter Marc Boal's experiences with a bomb unit in Iraq, "The Hurt Locker" was shot in Jordan, some scenes filmed within a few miles of the Iraqi border.
To keep things real, Bigelow shot one sequence without telling Renner exactly where the movie prop crew had planted the bomb he was to defuse. He had to march in and carefully sift through the scene the way a real bomb technician would have, the cameras capturing all his moves.
"Part of the opportunity of keeping this piece reportorial and raw and visceral and immediate is putting you, the audience, where the reporter was and where the soldier might be," Bigelow said.
The film has drawn raves from critics since it debuted at key film festivals last year. Summit Entertainment snapped it up for U.S. distribution, seeing commercial potential in "The Hurt Locker" despite audience apathy for earlier war-on-terror tales that included "Redacted," "Stop-Loss" and "Grace Is Gone."
Summit is starting the film out in limited release of just four theaters, then rolling it out to more cinemas over the next month. Can the film succeed where other terrorism-themed movies have failed?
"I'm just a filmmaker, so it's hard for me to take that kind of temperature reading," Bigelow said. "I certainly think that there's an intersection of entertainment and substance, meaning you've got a film that's a real nail-biter."