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by Mark Jenkins,
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JULY 10, 2009

Bombs, Swords, and,

Uh, Never Mind

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is narrrow but explosive; Blood: The Last Vampire is trashy but entertaining; and Sasha Baron Cohen's Brüno is not about anything but himself.

By Mark Jenkins

SURELY THE MOST MACHO WOMAN DIRECTOR in Hollywood history, Kathryn Bigelow has made films that range from silly (Point Break) to disturbingly perverse (Strange Days). Her signature piece may be 1989's Blue Steel, in which a commodities trader wreaks havoc with a pistol lifted from a rookie female cop: Gun fetishism runs wild, and male-female power relationships are more toxic than in any recent American movie not written by Nora Ephron.

There are no major female characters in Bigelow's latest and best film, The Hurt Locker, in which the director finally locates a place she feels at home: Iraq, 2004. Scripted by Mark Boal, a former Iraq War correspondent who co-wrote the overreaching In the Valley of Elah, this taut and gripping movie follows a three-man bomb squad. They do their job; it's hard, dangerous, and nerve-melting. Whether the U.S. should have invaded just never comes up.

A documentary-style prologue establishes the movie's approach. Poised Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and jumpy Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) handle the backup tasks as the team's point man (Guy Pearce) tries to defuse a bomb with a robot. The 'bot loses a wheel, so their leader puts on a blast suit and approaches the explosive. Let's just say that Pearce's role in a cameo.

On its next mission, the trio is led by Staff Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), who's cool but a little wild. He survives, yet there are times when the other two men think he's going to get them all killed. After one such occasion, Sanborn rewards James for his daring with a punch in the face. Back at Camp Victory, the three men gingerly become friends, and learn the meaning of the film's title: James has a locker full of detonators and such — "things that almost killed me."

The movie is chiefly a procedural, ticking off the second-by-second ordeal of defusing bombs. But the residents of Baghdad also feature in the story, and not just because one of them might be dialing the cell phone that's about to detonate an IED. James becomes friendly with a preteen hustler who calls himself Beckham, and tries to find him when he disappears. There's also an fleeting alliance with some British mercenaries, including one played by Strange Days star Ralph Fiennes. However diverse the anecdotes, however, they often end with the same punctuation: the sudden death of someone we barely know, but whose loss is palpable. Unlike in most war flicks, every killing counts.

Bigelow has no agenda, other than to celebrate manly resolve, illustrate what happens in modern-day war, and show how the adrenaline rush might, for some, become addictive. ("War is a drug" is the movie's epigraph.) This tight focus is both strength and weakness. The film doesn't wander into glib analysis, as did so many of the first crop of Iraq War dramas. On the other hand, the story barely needs to be set in Iraq at all. The Hurt Locker is so well-made that viewers may wish it thought little harder. Given the director's track record, though, it's probably just as well that the film sticks to sheer brute experience.

THE HURT LOCKER — 2008; 130 min; at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row.

ABSURDLY VIOLENT AND UTTERLY GOOFY, Blood: The Last Vampire is almost the sort of movie Bigelow used to make. But this hyper-eclectic samurai/vampire hybrid is a lot more fun than Bigelow's previous work, which usually took its alienation and brutality way too seriously. That's not possible with Blood, which can never hope to integrate all its motley elements, let alone validate them.

Adapted from Mamoru Oshii's anime, Blood was written by a Hong Kong scripter and is set in 1970s Japan, but its dialogue is mainly in English. The director is Frenchman Chris Nahon, a veteran of producer Luc Besson's delirious latter-day exploitation flicks. Heroine Saya, a vamp-killer who spends most of the movie in a Japanese schoolgirl's sailor dress, is played by Korean star Jeon Ji-hyun, here billed as Gianna. To pump up the geographic anarchy, Blood was filmed on Hong Kong and L.A. sets and Argentine locations.

As in the widely overrated Let the Right One In, the central character is a teenage girl who hasn't aged in centuries, and who avoids killing by drinking blood provided for her. In this case, the plasma comes from the Council, a mysterious anti-vampire organization that also provides Saya with information on the latest sightings of demons. (Traditionally, Japanese demons aren't the same thing as vampires, but globalization applies to villains as much as other cultural phenomenons.) The Council sends Saya, posing as a teenage student, to a U.S. military base whose inhabitants are tormented by both the Vietnam War and a pack of blood-suckers. Obviously but amusingly, the chant of "War! What is it good for?" announces her arrival.

Blood briefly becomes a high-school status comedy, with Saya as the new girl in school. Then a kendo (wooden sword) lesson for General's daughter Alice (Allison Miller) turns into a real swordfight, as the local mean girls are manifested as demons. Saya rescues Alice, and the two become friends and fugitives, tracking supernatural trouble through forests, streets, and cheap bars — including one where all the patrons are monsters and the band plays Shonen Knife's "Kappa X," an ode to traditional Japan's animist spirits.

Such touches — and Blood gushes with them — keep the story interesting even as the basic plot reveals just how basic it is. Anime veterans won't be surprised that the final development turns on the familiar themes of duality and transformation. ("Kill me. And become me," intones the villain.) But the pace is brisk, the '70s-Tokyo sets picturesque, and the color scheme contrasts dark-night-of-the-soul shadows with the candy colors of urban Japan. Vampires aside, Blood would be a fun place to live.

BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE — 2009, 88 min; at Landmark E Street.

SASHA BARON COHEN, THE CONFRONTATIONAL COMEDIAN who stars in and as Brüno, couldn't possibly hate homosexuals. He's a sophisticate, from cosmopolitan London. That's in Great Britain, which is much more refined than — as Cohen's Borat already demonstrated — the benighted United States. Yet Brüno, the tale of a gay Austrian "fashionista" who moves to L.A. to become famous, is powered mostly by horror of gay-male sex. Whenever the 82-minute movie's energy flags, which is often, Cohen reaches for another arcane sexual appliance, stages a different unusual position, or mimes an act that's never before been imitated in a R-rated movie. Think the full-frontal male nudity of recent frat-boy farces is a hoot? Well, Brüno doubles the stakes with an animatronic penis that dances and sings. Essentially, Brüno follows the same strategy as Clerks II or I Love You, Man: feigning open-mindedness while trawling for queasy laughs.

When not dispensing oh-yuck yuks, Cohen is supposedly satirizing celebrity and celebrities. He and director Larry Charles don't lure many of these exotic creatures to his ambush interviews, but they do waylay Paula Abdul and Ron Paul. (Neither encounter pays off.) Brüno adopts an African baby to tweak Madonna and Angelina Jolie, and to outrage a TV audience of homophobic African-Americans. He also interviews desperate stage mothers who will agree to any abuse to push their infants into show biz, and gets Bono, Sting, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Slash, and Coldplay's Chris Martin to appear in a parody of "We Are the World"-style anthems. But then these pop relics are using Cohen, rather than the other way around: They're inoculating themselves against charges of humorlessness.

Satire needs to have a point-of-view, but Brüno suggests that Cohen doesn't really care about fashion, movie stars, or homosexuality. What drives him is his own Jewishness, which is the only subject the movie addresses with any conviction. The thin thread link between Cohen and Brüno is that the latter is Austrian, and the comedian never lets that go. He considers the idea that Brüno might be "the greatest Austrian since Hitler" so funny that he uses it twice in one sequence. Even when Cohen is cattily questioning the sexual orientation of various Hollywood leading men, World War II is never far from his mind: He mocks Schwarzenegger's Teutonic origins, and refers to photos of Brad Pitt and Mel Gibson as, respectively, "Brad Pittler" and "the Führer." Sounding like a cross between Werner Herzog and a swishy Mel Brooks, Cohen mangles German as if ersatz Deutsch were the best possible revenge. Indeed, Brüno seems to exist entirely so that Cohen can play a German-accented gay man who refers to his anus as his "Auschwitz."

BRÜNO — 2009, 82 min; at all the usual places.