Thursday, April 16, 2009

Will you pay to see this movie? The Hurt Locker.

Here's a little box-office reality - in 2008, war movies didn't sell. For that matter, they didn't sell in 2007, or 2006. You get the idea. Regardless of big stars, popular directors and talented writers, war movies didn't make life easy for any studio's marketing department. Here's just a sample of the audience rejection for movies with stories based on the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the policies and politics that surround them.
Lions for Lambs (Nov. 2007) - directed by Robert Redford with a "serious" cast that included both Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. More of a talking heads discussion of the war and American politics, the film portrayed Cruise as a politician, Streep as a journalist and Redford as a college professor. Though the dialogue was for the most part smart, the message was perceived as heavy handed and boring. (You can check what we said after seeing it by clicking here.) Lions for Lambs ran it's course making only 14.9 million at the US box-office, but interestingly, made another 48 million worldwide.

Rendition (Oct. 2007) - Boasting stars Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal (and Meryl Streep), "Rendition", the practice of apprehension and "extrajudicial" transfer of an individual to another country/state as a suspected terrorist, formed the basis of a dramatic and emotional story of an American, pregnant housewife desperate to uncover what has happened to her Egyptian-born husband. In spite of the controversial topic and the star power, Rendition managed only 9.7 million in the US and added just 20 million more worldwide.

In the Valley of Elah (Sept. 2007) - Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, Paul Haggis directed this film from a story written by Mark Boal (the screenwriter for The Hurt Locker). Set entirely in the US, this film is essentially a murder mystery that hovers on a critical indictment of the lack of attention paid to the psychological damages soldiers suffer in war. The first rate cast included Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin and Jason Patric but made only 6.7 million in the US and added only 17.7 more worldwide.

Redacted (Nov. 2007) - Shot mostly with annoying hand-held cameras (part of the films "soldiers-eye-view" gimmick), director Brian De Palma tried desperately to raise anti-war controversy to sell his movie, while also bringing the word "redacted" into the American lexicon (but briefly). His efforts could only muster the worst showing of any war based film since toppling Mr. Hussein (or perhaps, ever) by registering a mere $65,000.00 at the US box-office. There were no foreign sales to add to that total. The film ranked number 466 for 2007's top films.

Stop-Loss (March 2008) - Another film that introduced a military practice that most non-military types knew nothing of. This time, Ryan Phillippe was the soldier returning from Iraq, in one piece and at the end of his scheduled tour, only to discover that he was being stop-lossed, or in layman's terms, forcibly re-upped for another tour of duty. Though those of us without military service in our backgrounds were agreeing with the "how the f--- can they do that" part of the story, no one showed much interest at the box-office. Stop-Loss could only muster 10.9 million here in the states and barely touched overseas audiences for just over a 1/4 of a million more.

It's 2009, and in June The Hurt Locker will try again. The story puts us on the ground in Iraq amidst the number one killer facing our troops, IEDs - improvised explosive devices. We see the story through the eyes of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner of ABC's new cop show The Unusuals), a bomb disposal expert and, from the looks of things in the trailer, a bit of a lone maverick.

The trailer makes it clear that though the camera work and lighting seem to be going for a documentary like feel, the story is full-on action and suspense. That may suggest treading a fine line between telling an exciting and compelling story and using the realities of war for exploitation. In Sergeant James, there may be a truly interesting character to reveal, or an unrealistic depiction of a cliched lose cannon with a hardened self destructive bent. In the right hands, a great action flick set in a war zone. In lesser hands, another lost effort in finding a fitting vehicle for telling a contemporary war story.

So will you want to go see The Hurt Locker? Have you had enough of today's war movies parading desert camo'd grunts rocking out to blaring anthems while commanding the latest in US weaponery? Are you saturated with violence, politics and policies? Or is there a great war movie waiting to be made? Is personalizing the cost of war through a soldier tasked with confronting, close-up, one of it's deadliest weapons, a great plot device to tell a broader story?

Take a look at the trailer first, by clicking any where in this sentence and jumping to Pulling Focus at After you've watched as may times as you like, click the link next to the trailer and jump back to leave a comment. Will you pay to see The Hurt Locker? Let us know what you think.

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