The Army bomb-disposal specialist so memorably played by Jeremy Renner in the extraordinary battlefield drama The Hurt Locker operates with the swagger of a hothead in a job that depends on cool. That cowboy attitude exasperates one combat-weary member (Anthony Mackie) of his Baghdad-based Bravo Company team and frightens another (Brian Geraghty) to furious tears. What's the source of this grim bravado? Is this decent man's addiction to adrenaline the cost to today's American soldier of volunteering for such a crazy assignment, one that requires a husband with a family thousands of miles away to lie down in the road in the hot sun next to a live bomb to disarm a deadly device while locals whose language he can't understand stare impassively?
It so happens that The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq. But geography is almost beside the point. What makes the film so essential is its pinpoint accuracy in mapping the disorienting roads a man can walk down when his job keeps him so close to death, working for what sometimes feels like a distant principle. Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal (whose blunt, vivid script is based on reports from his 2004 stint in Baghdad embedded with an Army bomb squad) probe the intersection of bravery and obsession, of risk and responsibility. (Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes make brief, jolting cameo appearances as similar risk-takers.) The result is an intense, action-driven war pic, a muscular, efficient standout that simultaneously conveys the feeling of combat from within as well as what it looks like on the ground. This ain't no war videogame, no flashy, cinematic art piece; there's nothing virtual about this reality. A