“I know what eats a man who has endured the tension of war for years. It’s like a drug. A man can’t live without it.”
– They Died with Their Boots On
“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
– The Hurt Locker
Even though I thought highly of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker when it was first released in Chicago in 2009, it has only continued to rise in my esteem over the last three years. Prior to its Best Picture Oscar win, I found myself relentlessly championing it to skeptical friends, mostly by comparing it to classic Hollywood movies by John Ford and Howard Hawks. It does, after all, examine group dynamics and the theme of “professionalism” a la Hawks. And, in its unforgettable lead character of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), it also arguably provides contemporary audiences with a 21st century equivalent of The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards: a tragic hero whose “virtues” are ironically what prevent him from becoming a productive member of the very society that he is ostensibly helping to save and thus allowing to perpetuate. (I firmly believe that the film’s controversial and ambiguous ending is an illustration that James will never be a good husband or father.) Now, after going on a binge of watching movies by the great Raoul Walsh, I realize that my analogy was a little off; it is Walsh that Bigelow resembles more closely than his contemporaries Ford or Hawks.
Andrew Sarris (RIP!) aptly, and famously, summed up the heroes of Raoul Walsh by contrasting them with the heroes of Ford and Hawks: “If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks by professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling of adventure. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, never too sure what he will find there.” In other words, Walsh’s heroes, like Walsh himself, were “adrenaline junkies,” a phrase that has also been used to describe Bigelow’s characters. The adventurousness of Walsh’s heroes, whether they are gangsters, cavalrymen, prizefighters or western outlaws, was explicitly mirrored by Walsh himself, who captured their stories through an adventurous brand of filmmaking – usually by shooting on location in exotic locales and favoring sequences involving elaborately choreographed action over dialogue-based scenes. It is precisely this “feeling of adventure,” filmmaking as athleticism, that binds Bigelow and Walsh and that makes the Hurt Locker helmer the old master’s true heir apparent.
The question then arises: why has The Hurt Locker been treated like an “art film” instead of the Walshian action film that it is? This can only be answered by looking at how the action genre has evolved over the last century. It is a sad reality that the American action movie has suffered more than any other single genre since the decline of the old studio system. The very phrase “action film,” as utilized by a great critic like Manny Farber, used to be synonymous with a movie that was made cheaply, quickly and on a small scale. (It now seems incredible but Farber used the phrase “underground film” to essentially mean action movie.) No more. While good unpretentious action films are still churned out on a regular basis by various Asian filmmakers (Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Na Hong-jin, etc.), Hollywood has all but doomed the genre by consigning it to the fate of the bloated, CGI-laden spectacle. The contemporary Hollywood action movie, as exemplified by Michael Bay and his alarming number of imitators, typically clocks in at over two and a half hours, does not exceed the PG-13 rating and has a budget of over 100 million dollars (traits that are all, depressingly, interrelated). What does it say that a film like the original Die Hard, a Hollywood action juggernaut that still probably stands as the finest of the 1980s, now looks both relatively modest and adult by comparison?
I hasten to add that the real problem with Bay and his ilk has nothing to do with money spent nor technology used. The biggest problem is that the filmmaking is simply inept (e.g., the axis-of-action rule is mindlessly disregarded, hyperkinetic editing is employed less to complement the action than to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual agitation, etc.). Money and technology do not automatically have to take the place of craftsmanship, as David Fincher’s ingenious and seamless use of CGI proves, and yet the best technology and the worst art frequently do go hand in hand. My first thought upon seeing the relatively lo-fi Hurt Locker (it was shot partly on 16mm and partly on digital), after getting over its initial heart-stopping, visceral impact, was to marvel at just how damn well made it is. I’ll never forget watching, for the first time, the firefight scene with the mercenaries in the desert and having this strange feeling come over me; it seemed almost novel to be watching a new American film involving characters shooting at each other over a long distance where the spatial and temporal relationships between them made perfect sense. More than anything else, I believe it was respect for Bigelow’s craftsmanship that lay at the heart of The Hurt Locker‘s critical love. Sadly, while Raoul Walsh used to direct action set pieces better than anyone, he has still not gotten his critical due and was never even nominated for an Oscar. In the golden age of Hollywood, his basic skills as a director weren’t considered unusual.