'The Hurt Locker': World Of Warfare, By Kurt Loder

A small but muscular combat classic.

"The Hurt Locker" is a movie about war, and it's set in Iraq, but it's not another Iraq War Movie. Director Kathryn Bigelow and the screenwriter, combat journalist Mark Boal, are too smart and tough-minded to inflate the story with windy political pieties. It's a film about war as an every-damn-day environment, and about the men who have to live in it — and to accept the fact that they may die in it, too, very suddenly.

The picture is set in Baghdad in 2004, one year after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. We're on patrol with a three-man bomb squad charged with disarming the deadly Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, with which terrorists have littered the city and its environs. The team consists of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), the team leader. The robot bomb-sniffer they send wheeling out ahead of them has located an IED. Thompson clamps on the moon-man helmet of his armored bomb-squad suit and clumps off toward the suspect device to disarm it. We immediately realize that this could be a job with a high turnover rate. Then, in a nearby building, we see a civilian onlooker holding a cell phone, and suddenly, in one thunderous moment, the unit has a new leadership vacuum.

The team now has just 38 days left in-country — 38 days till they rotate back to the States. Sanborn and Eldridge are praying that Thompson's replacement will be a level-headed pro who won't get them killed before they can get out of this hellhole; but the new man turns out to be Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who appears not to care if he gets himself killed. James isn't fearless in a showboating way — he simply has no fear. Walking out on his own to neutralize a bomb-rigged car, he strips off his bulky armored suit and says with a smile, "If I'm gonna die, I wanna die comfortable." James is a good guy, a buddy. He sincerely wants to protect people from getting hurt. And it's clear that he's very good at what he does — he's still walking around after having disarmed several hundred bombs in various other hot, dusty and godforsaken locales. But the man is a puzzle, even to himself. Knowing that he has a wife and child back home, Sanborn asks James why he does it, why he takes the risks. "I don't know," he says.

The movie was shot mostly in Jordan, on a very low budget, with hand-held cameras. This works to its advantage — it feels like a documentary. (Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also shot Paul Greengrass' semi-improvised "United 93.") Bigelow, whose résumé includes such pictures as "Strange Days" and the great "Near Dark," is an action director with ideas and a talent for manipulating tension. She pumps it up in a desert shoot-out with terrorists, then eases back as the confrontation subsides into a standoff, and the sequence becomes an essay in heat and sweat and flies as the soldiers wait and wait for a target to nail. It's an uncommonly evocative depiction of the sheer exhausting drudgery of modern combat.

There are some vivid passing touches, too, like a soldier wiping blood off of bullets so they'll fire when he clips them into his weapon. The great overhead shot in which we see James carefully lifting a suspicious red wire out of the sand — and slowly revealing a web of deadly explosives all around him — has an almost sci-fi eeriness. And in a sizzling raid on a makeshift terrorist bomb factory, the movie delivers its most horrific surprise.

The three lead actors are a convincing team; and Renner, last seen in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," is a quiet revelation (and, as of here, a star). His character is affable and even warm-hearted (his friendship with an Iraqi boy selling bootleg DVDs outside the army base is a significant subplot). He seems like a guy we might know — but never really know. Unlike his two comrades, he's not desperately counting down the days till he goes home. He seems at home right here, in a world of round-the-clock hostility and death. By his bunk he keeps a tangle of components from the many bombs he's disarmed. "This box is full of stuff that almost killed me," he says. He knows this collection could suddenly be rendered complete at any moment, and he doesn't know why he doesn't care.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Surveillance," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Hurt Locker."

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.