“The Hurt Locker”
Summit
At the State

4 out of 5 stars

About 50 minutes — time is of suspenseful notice here — into Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” it becomes intensely clear why the movie is so damn awesome. Three soldiers must investigate an abandoned building. They’re stationed in Iraq in 2004, and the three are looking to confirm or deny the reason they’ve been called in. There might be a bomb in the building. And it could evaporate the place any moment.

First thing that comes to mind: Where’s Keanu Reeves or Bruce Willis to kick down doors, quip some wisecracks and defuse the bomb with two seconds left on the red read-out?

Well, they’re not here. And that’s what makes “Hurt Locker” an electric, exciting and at times excruciating experience. The scene is actually scary. There are no Bruckheimer gimmicks in this Iraq war piece; no agendas on the horrors and honors of war. Just the facts. War is scary. And we should all be so glad if we don’t have to go. But in some cases, people need it. Believe the hype: “The Hurt Locker” is a genuine article.

“Hurt Locker” is a movie about the last days in Bravo Company for the aforementioned three men. Two of them, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, “She Hate Me”) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, “We Are Marshall”) are a little anxious. Their previous Sergeant and bomb-stopper got blown up on the job. Enter replacement Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, “28 Weeks Later”).

James is wild, and he’s making the last 39 days of rotation for the other two way sweatier than it ought to be. He throws gas bombs to distract the locals. He points guns at bystanders or possible bombers in his way. And when a bomb might be in the trunk of a flaming parked car, James just kicks it open with his foot. But despite his obvious recklessness, he’s not crazy — just way too used to his job.

Forget the opening line about how “war is a drug.” It’s true here, yes. But James is more like a cellist playing the same notes of the same song, day after day, just in new venues. Forget the cool leading man of action movies from recent years. James isn’t cool or clever. He’s just full of true grit, and he’s a gifted and haunting man. And “Hurt Locker” really is his movie.

Renner gives a truly volatile performance as James. After having been assigned to meatheads, B-movies and one “National Lampoon” film, Renner displays a fascinating and complicated man here. His commitment, addiction, need, talent — whatever you call it — for his job is remarkable, and you never blink when he’s in his element. He’s bottled up, waiting to pop, but he’s smarter than one might think. In the danger zone, at home or desperately drinking with the men of Bravo, James is the real deal. Hopefully for Renner, “The Hurt Locker” is remembered come statue time.

But the commander here is Kathryn Bigelow. Having directed moderate action fare like “Point Break” and “K-19: The Widowmaker,” Bigelow finally made a piece that could be her masterwork. Synthesizing her previous penchant for sturdy aesthetics and human melodrama, Bigelow has moved up to her smartest film. One that earns its thrills, engages in ideas and makes good use of everyone around. From Barry Ackroyd’s (“United 93”) docu-photography to David Bryan’s (“A Mighty Heart”) dried art direction, “The Hurt Locker” never cheats. It just ignites on all levels.

With the last year-and-a-half’s abundance of Iraq flicks (“In the Valley of the Elah,” “Stop Loss,” “Rendition”), where does “The Hurt Locker” stand? Head and wire-clippers above the rest. It’s not perfect, but it is an effective work of terror, heroics and the blurs of war. A summer surprise and a fall awards contender, “The Hurt Locker” may be a timeless drama.

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