July 9, 2009 7:31 PM EDT

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U.S. soldiers heading to Iraq, especially before the 2007 surge, had little to look forward to. Just the 130° heat and streets full of men, women and kids, any one of whom could detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) and blow a street and all its people, American and Iraqi, to bits. In this hell-storm, what’s left for an ordinary soldier to do? His job.

American movies took ages to address Iraq and its satellite wars, and then tended to point fingers at the military. Documentaries said that soldiers were bred to be mindless killers (The Ground Truth) and then discarded when they lost their limbs or their minds (Body of War). Dramatic films like In the Valley of Elah and Redacted said that Iraq was a communicable disease that turned decent guys into psycho killers.

These worthy films were based on fact and told a microscopic truth, but they left untold the larger ache of an Iraq tour: how men in peril survive. Finally comes The Hurt Locker, a scary, thrilling patrol of those Baghdad streets by men who defuse IEDs. Written by journalist Mark Boal (whose reporting was the basis for Elah) and directed by action-movie maven Kathryn Bigelow, this film looks, feels and smells real; you’ll need to rinse off the grit after seeing it.

A U.S. Army bomb-disposal unit has three people: an intelligence officer, the specialist who covers the scene with his rifle and the staff sergeant who walks up to the device and tries to turn it off. The movie opens with the report of one such device on a Baghdad street. After some studiously cool guy talk, to reassure his men that this is just another day at the office, the staff sergeant strides toward the contaminated area in his heavy haz-mat suit, looking like an astronaut on Mars, complete with an R2D2-like robot on wheels. He disables the IED, and as he walks away, his comrades spot a man about to use a cell phone. The spaceman turns and runs. Too late: BOOM! The bomb explodes and so does he. Blood seeps down his helmet visor like red rain on the wrong side of a car windshield.

In these first minutes, The Hurt Locker sets its theme and tactics. Its heroes are brave soldiers, sanitation men in a place where the detritus is deadly, and on every mission they risk their lives to save those of a people they may not like and probably don’t understand. The opening also tells viewers to proceed warily. At one moment they’ll be watching in their seats; then, without warning, it’s duck and cover.

With the death of their boss, the two survivors–Sergeant J.T. “Bomber Mike” Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty)–get a new boss, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an Afghanistan vet who lacks his predecessor’s leadership skills and bluff camaraderie. James doesn’t say much and just does his own thing, which is to keep little pieces of Baghdad from blowing up.

We soon learn that James is nuts, but exactly the right kind of nuts for the job: ice-water nerves and a go-it-alone bravado to match his ninja expertise. Finding a string nearly buried in street rubble, he lifts it and finds it’s attached to half a dozen bombs. Blithely he snaps a wire, making the devices harmless. Piece of cake, six slices.

Whether he’s stripping a car piece by piece, cutting open a boy’s stomach to pull out an IED or joining some Brit mercenaries (led by Ralph Fiennes) in the desert, James is a marvel to see in action. He has the cool aplomb, analytical acumen and attention to detail of a great athlete or a master serial killer–anyway, some gifted obsessive. A quote from Iraq expert Chris Hedges that opens the film reads, “War is a drug.” Movies often editorialize on this theme: the man who’s a misfit back home but an efficient, imaginative killing machine on the battlefield. Bigelow and Boal aren’t after that. They’re saying that, in such an infernal peacekeeping operation, the Army needs guys like James.

And James needs the Army. He has to do what he’s supremely good at, even if the job carries the imminent risk of death. (He has a wife and child back home, but he keeps re-upping.) Other men have a talent for making bombs; James has a genius for finding and silencing them. It’s not just his job; it’s his vocation. More than that, for him it’s fun. If defusing IEDs isn’t a drug for James, it’s his headiest, most essential adrenaline. Though his mates aren’t crazy about his methods–Sanborn sucker punches James in the jaw after one escapade–they’ll come to appreciate him. “Not very good with people, are you?” Eldridge says to James. “But you’re a good warrior.”

Bigelow is a man’s director who happens to be a woman. She’s paraded her adroitness in two odd subgenres: Near Dark was a nifty teenage-vampire love story, Point Break the all-time surfer-heist movie. She loves to locate affinities in people with opposite agendas, and vice versa; so James is often isolated from his comrades, while he gets into recklessly close contact with the Iraqis. Bigelow is also a whiz at discovering fresh talent, and in Renner she hit the jackpot. The actor is ordinary-looking, pudgy-faced, quiet; can he carry a big film? Oh, yes. He soon reveals the strength, confidence and unpredictability of a young Russell Crowe.

The Hurt Locker has a few longueurs, and once or twice it spells out in dialogue what the images have eloquently shown. But short of being there, you’ll never get closer to the on-the-ground immediacy of the Iraq occupation, its sick tension, its toxic tang. This is one of the great war films, and our own Medal of Honor winner for 2009.

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