The joke goes that a bomb technician only ever makes two mistakes in his career, the first being taking on the job to begin with. The main character of The Hurt Locker wouldn’t agree. He defuses bombs for a living, and he loves it. This movie takes place during the thick of the Iraq war, but it’s not really about Iraq, nor is it even that much about war in general.

It’s a character piece that tries to figure out what kind of person feels most alive when he’s playing with devices of death. After the austere, nerve-jangling thriller ends, you feel as if you’ve been in his company and have gained as much of an answer as you’ll ever get.the-hurt-locker_1432103c

Set in 2004, the film opens on an evacuated Baghdad street, where Bravo Company’s explosive ordnance disposal squad and their team leader/bomb tech (Guy Pearce) are trying to defuse an IED, watched by a crowd of curious onlookers. One of those bystanders isn’t so innocent, and when the soldiers in Bravo fail to spot him and his detonator in time, their leader is caught in the resulting blast. The film’s title is bomb-squad slang for where one goes after a mistake.

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Bravo’s new leader is Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner), a guy who’s tight-lipped in private conversation but acts like a cowboy when he’s on the job, frequently making moves without consulting his fellow soldiers or keeping them informed about what he’s doing. He disdains the use of remote-control robots to inspect potential explosive devices, preferring to do the job up close with his own hands. That’s typical of the risks he takes with his own life and eventually with the lives of his comrades, too. Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) bear the brunt of the difficulties of working with James, but they find it hard to argue with his track record of successfully defusing more than 800 bombs.

The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who broke into Hollywood in the late 1980s and made everybody take note of the novelty of a woman directing hardcore action movies. I must admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers. Strange Days, Point Break, Blue Steel, and K-19: The Widowmaker, were all riddled by pretentious self-importance and ridiculous story developments.

Those flaws aren’t in evidence here, though. This 138-minute film is stripped down and muscular, without any philosophical flourishes or melodramatic excesses. Bigelow gives a distinct character to each of the action sequences. In one hushed scene, James finds an extra set of wires on the bomb that he just defused and follows them until he discovers that he’s surrounded by six more live bombs. In another one, James meticulously goes over every inch of a car that’s wired to explode, caressing the seats and floorboards in search of the detonator while ignoring his fellow soldiers’ stressing out over the large crowd gathered around them. There’s even a terrific action sequence that doesn’t involve a bomb, when sniper fire forces the soldiers to take cover in a desert ravine with a bunch of outgunned British private security contractors. In all of these, Bigelow takes a cool, objective, slow-burning approach, and her use of non-stars in the lead roles makes you think that any character here could plausibly die.

Everything coalesces around James, a thrill junkie who has a wife and son back home but finds life with them to be unutterably boring next to handling explosives. The scene with the car demonstrates the mix of detail-orientation and unflappable bravado that makes him uniquely suited to his job. He admires the craftsmanship of bomb-makers, keeping a box of detonators from defused bombs under his bed. He always has to push the envelope: During a session of horseplay with Sanborn, he plays too rough until the sergeant pulls a knife on him. He is capable of more recognizable human emotions, witnessed by his ill-fated friendship with a soccer-playing kid who calls himself Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) and sells DVDs on the base. Renner, an actor whose beady eyes and busted nose have frequently gotten him cast in villainous roles (Dahmer, S.W.A.T.), fully inhabits this fundamentally unknowable character, knowing when to pull back or open up the throttle, as when James leads Sanborn and Eldridge on a crazy stupid vengeance mission into Baghdad at night.

By the end of The Hurt Locker, James is up for more action, whereas Eldridge and especially Sanborn look like they’ve seen enough blood and are ready to go back to their civilian lives. This lopsided man has found a niche in the world that lets him be himself, a niche that will disappear when there are no more live bombs for the U.S. Army to defuse. We may not like Staff Sgt. James all that much, but those of us who get our adrenaline fixes at the movies can recognize a bit of ourselves in him.

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