The Hurt Locker does the impossible: It single-handedly redeems the mostly misbegotten run of “sand” films, those war-on-terror features connected to Iraq and Afghanistan, a genre about as useless and debased as those feel-good romantic comedies where Kate Hudson sings into a hairbrush, makes goo-goo eyes at Gerard Butler, and throws a hunk of wedding cake at Anne Hathaway. Note I said “features”; there have been excellent documentaries about our ongoing engagements, and the filmmakers wisely take their cues from those.

Hollywood was slow to react to Vietnam. The first major films about the war, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, were mirages, with abstract themes, that came after the fighting had ended; it wasn’t until the ’80s when more concrete movies, like Platoon, appeared. The apparatus may have been too fast to react to our post-9/11 reality, flooding a trickle of audiences with well-intentioned but suffocating liberal hand-wringing — earlier this year Cinemax must have had its lowest ratings ever when it programmed, back-to-back, the flops In the Valley of Elah (forget the subject; who the hell would see a movie called In the Valley of Elah?) and Rendition. The few attempts to actually engage an audience, like The Kingdom, swapped the lectures for action movie clichés, an unsatisfying trade.

A hit at festivals last fall, The Hurt Locker was wise to sit tight and wait for the bloviating to blow over. Whether there’s much of an audience left for an Iraq movie that shrugged at Tom Cruise’s and Reese Witherspoon’s efforts as it expands into more theaters today is open to question, but there’s no question that the film deserves to win hearts and minds. The three or four marquee names in the supporting cast of The Hurt Locker are part of its fabric. At its center is a character, Staff Sergeant Will James, who is superb at his job — a good thing, as his job is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in the war-torn country.

James is part of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Unit (EDO) that dons android-like suits and moves in when their robotic detectors smell trouble. But James, played with an extraordinary purity of concentration by Jeremy Renner, prefers to keep one step ahead of the “bots” and pulls off the suit if it cramps his virtuosic style of bomb disposal. And James is a virtuoso, with over 800 bombs defused, and the movie puts him in a variety of tricky situations, under the watchful eyes of Iraqis who are clearly complicit or, at best, only ambiguously friendly. (You look at the shattered buildings they hide in and can’t blame them their ill will, which the movie doesn’t need to editorialize.) He’s not, however, solo in his dangerous work, and his methods clash with by-the-book approach of Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who as the films opens are 38 days and out and don’t need a risk-taker on what’s left of their rotation. (What’s left of James’ predecessor has been shipped home in a “hurt locker.”)

Thanks to a potent combination of three elements — the jittery, though not overdone, verite-style cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, the sure-handed editing of Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, and an omnipresent soundscape (with blasts of Ministry) by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders — the film is tremblingly suspenseful, but without the race-against-the-clock heroics of James Bond or the cut-the-red wire/cut-the-blue wire situation that action movies still steal from 1974’s cruise ship thriller Juggernaut. It’s a closely focused character study, more in the vein of the underrated Powell/Pressburger collaboration about a fragile booby trap expert, The Small Back Room (1949), with the blasted-to-hell mise en scene of Robert Aldrich’s typically ferocious Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), where bomb disposers Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler are at war with each other in post World War II-Berlin.

Embedded journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal wrote the Playboy article on which Elah was based. This original screenplay doesn’t elaborate itself to death. You want to know more about the mystery that is James, and Renner, for all the character’s nonchalant bravado, withholds the clues. The movie is mostly framed around his risks in the field, with unpredictable asides that show a more erratically human side. James is in the grips of something that his family and peers can never understand, but that we have access to, thanks to Renner’s typically close-to-the-bone performance. He played the serial killer in 2002’s Dahmer, and has worn uniforms in films like S.W.A.T. (2003) and 28 Weeks Later (2007), plus this spring’s short-lived cop show The Unusuals. This is, at last, the breakthrough. Mackie (a fine stage actor who played Tupac Shakur in Notorious) and Geraghty provide balance in a portrait of lives that are in no way workaday.

The Hurt Locker is in perfect balance, functioning as an absorbing thriller, a first-rate analysis of a special type of thrill-seeker, and a mercifully understated commentary on the war. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, is something of a puzzle to me. Like Michael Mann, she’s a filmmaker whom film critics are expected to kneel before and worship — she’s commandingly beautiful, for one thing — but I’ve yet to scrape my knees. The vampire picture that put her on the map, 1987’s Near Dark, has had an influence but is very studied. 1990’s Blue Steel is good on action but ludicrous on motivation, and 1995’s Strange Days one of the worst films ever to play at the New York Film Festival. 2000’s The Weight of Water is a flailing credit even her fans can’t fathom, and 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker a costly career sinker. That leaves Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze outgunning and out-Zenning one another in 1991’s Point Break, which I adore — but this is a quantum leap beyond that poker-faced camp. For me, this is her breakthrough, too, and the best American movie of the year to date.

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