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'The Hurt Locker' and its secret weapon: The return of John Wayne

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“Is that you, John Wayne?”

So smirks Matthew Modine’s Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s great Vietnam film — and the movie that, more than any other (at least, in its combat-centered second half), casts a stylistic shadow over the hair-trigger raggedy-existential look and mood of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Bigelow, like Kubrick, unfurls her potent and gripping war movie in a desolate trashed landscape of urban detritus, full of jagged zooms and off-kilter angles, where nothing — not God or fate, not your fellow soldiers — can ever truly protect you. In Full Metal Jacket, Joker mocked the very notion of “John Wayne,” because what Wayne represented was the kind of solid, white-bread American heroism that Vietnam had exposed as an anachronism — a Big Lie. The chaos of Vietnam, the movie implied, didn’t breed any more John Waynes. It bred terror and madness: borderline sociopaths dressed as soldiers.

If war was “insane” in Full Metal Jacket, then in the squalid desert maze of The Hurt Locker war barely pretends to be hooked up to a higher purpose. An opening title informs us that “War is a drug,” and the movie’s central character, the fearless bomb defuser played by Jeremy Renner, is presented as an inscrutable cock-of-the-walk danger junkie, the kind of glorified, transplanted frat-house daredevil who could only exist in a place like Iraq. We’ve seen this sort of combat addict before, in most of the Vietnam films. Full Metal had Adam Baldwin’s boyish, hulking savage beast Animal Mother, and Platoon was haunted by the scarred face of Tom Berenger’s squad leader, a man whose broken soul feasted on the hell of battle.

Jeremy Renner is the ideal actor to play the Iraq-war descendent of these suicide-squad thrill junkies. I first realized what a remarkable talent he is when I experienced the audacity of his performance as Jeffrey Dahmer in the little-seen 2002 indie Dahmer (here’s my original review). In The Hurt Locker, Renner is just as vivid. Everything about him is eccentrically fascinating: his slightly squashed baby face, with its sandpapery skin and star-child eyes, and the what-the-hell dixie-kid bravura with which he stares at those bomb wires, fixated, coaxing them out of the sand or the garbage bags in which they’re hidden, so that he can snip through their danger.

The movie implies that you’d have to be a little crazy to be this calm in the face of a buried metal-tank explosive that’s three inches from your face. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that the secret weapon of The Hurt Locker — what makes the movie enthralling to watch, but also, beneath the raw jostling “reality” of Bigelow’s filmmaking, a pop fantasy in a way that the Vietnam films were not — is that Renner’s character, for all the war-is-a-drug chatter, is never, ever anything less than a cathartically admirable savior-hero. He’s even rather courtly, a quality that we assume is ironic, but that turns out to be anything but. He’s John Wayne reincarnated in the body of a rap-generation leatherneck.

In The Hurt Locker, Renner takes care of those bombs with nuthin’ to it! aplomb. He’s a loner in his courage, not quite perfect at following orders, but only because he knows that the missions depend on how far he can put himself out there. He’s soft-spoken and modest, and he befriends an Iraqi boy who sells him DVDs. Even his one high-tension episode of “abandon,” when he sneaks off base to investigate what happened to the boy, is presented as a trek of reckless compassion — it’s like a miniature, compacted version of Wayne’s crazy-noble quest in The Searchers. In The Hurt Locker‘s spectacular climax, when Renner attempts to defuse a thicket of explosive devices that have been strapped, and padlocked, onto an Iraqi civilian, even his failure is fraught with honor. “I’m sorry!” he yells, those eyes squinched in anguish. “I’m sorry!” Here, at last, the character’s real addiction is laid bare: He’s a junkie for saving lives.

In The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner embodies the kindred spirit of another movie character, all right, but it’s not Animal Mother or Platoon‘s mutilated battle psycho. It is, rather, John Wayne updated to the action-movie mystique of one of Kathryn Bigelow’s most enduring creations: the fearlessly admirable Zen surfer/bank robber/adrenaline junkie played by Patrick Swayze in Point Break. And maybe that’s why the movie, for all its heightened bravura, is something less than great. The Hurt Locker is a riveting experience, but it’s an Iraq war film that pivots around a dark-side daredevil…without a true dark side.