Nerveless, fearless, reckless, willing to do without any number of safety devices, including the suit, James is simultaneously a hot-shot action junkie who gets high on adrenaline and a cool, extremely accomplished technician who relishes the intellectual challenge of figuring out what makes a particular bomb tick. Literally.
As this three-man squad progresses from terrifying situation to more terrifying situation, we experience not only breathless action but also the development of what might be called a philosophical rivalry between the two sergeants about the best way to be a brave and effective soldier. It's not an abstract question, it's one that could determine who will live and who will die.
One of the most unexpected things about "The Hurt Locker" is that, unlike many war films, it is not interested in having you choose sides in this debate. In fact, it reveals unlooked-for aspects of all the characters, especially James, like the sergeant's playfulness with a young Iraqi boy (Christopher Sayegh) who calls himself Beckham and says things like "I hook you up." Renner handles all sides of his surprisingly complex character beautifully, in a performance so good it feels like a gift.
For all its realism, "The Hurt Locker" is also a stylized film that deals in the quality of myth. While documentaries have shown that the reality of Iraq is incendiary combat interspersed with tedious down time, this film largely does without the down time, placing us in such a rapid-fire sequence of high-octane situations that we never ever have a chance to catch our breath.
Finally, almost without our realizing it, "The Hurt Locker" asks difficult questions about heroism's costs and demands, about what war does to soldiers, and about damage that may be impossible to rectify or repair.
The film starts with a celebrated quote from the book "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." It's easy to understand this thought intellectually, but by the time this remarkable film comes to an end, we feel it in our souls.
'The Hurt Locker'
MPAA rating: R for war violence and language
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In limited release