DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Director Kathryn Bigelow is widely acclaimed for two films with cult followings - 1985's poetic outlaw vampire saga "Near Dark" and 1991's daredevil movie "Point Blank." Her profile has been lower since then. But that might change with her latest film, "The Hurt Locker." It tracks an army explosive ordnance disposal unit, or bomb squad, in Iraq in 2004. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Some filmmakers know how to get under your skin and control your responses, to infect you. And Kathryn Bigelow is among the most gifted. Here's how I knew her Baghdad-set war movie "The Hurt Locker was" inside me. The characters were in a fierce desert firefight and Jeremy Renner's Sgt. William James had grabbed the rifle of a soldier who'd just been shot down. It jammed, because the bullets were sticky with blood, and James pulled them out and as enemy shots exploded around him, he dumped them into the hands of a neophyte soldier.

He yelled, Clean them off! - and the soldier yelled, How? And James said, Saliva! And at that moment — I swear — I found myself building up spit, because it was all so crazy fast and I thought, I can help, and there was no time even to laugh at myself.

Set in 2004, "The Hurt Locker" centers on an American bomb squad — now, centers is wrong, since the film doesn't feel as if it has a center. It veers from one gut-churning mission to the next.

Screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded as a journalist in Iraq with an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit. He and Bigelow take their theme from a book by Christopher Hedges that war is, quote, "a drug, a potent and lethal addiction." That line opens the movie, and I think putting it onscreen is a mistake. It pins down the thesis. But Bigelow has certainly made it live. The camera moves are sudden, the cuts a beat too quick. The jumps from close-up to long shot signal explosions are imminent, even when they're not. Bigelow is in sync with men under threat from all angles. And the men, their weapons cocked, are alert to everything - a pop, a head poking from a window, a wire snaking out from a mound of debris. "The Hurt Locker" isn't like other Iraq films, which lead with American paralysis and guilt. The horror is here, but underneath the rush.

There is a conventional dramatic conflict. It's between Renner's James and Anthony Mackie's Sergeant J.T. Sanborn, who thinks James is a cowboy, a danger to the unit. Their tug-of-war plays out over and over, as James dons the astronaut-like bomb suit and walks toward a potential explosive, a new pyrotechnical puzzle, while Sanborn's men pirouette and scan surrounding buildings and bystanders. After one successful bomb diffusion, James is accosted by a colonel, played by David Morse.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. DAVID MORSE (Actor): (As Colonel Reed) (unintelligible) flaming car, Sergeant James, (unintelligible)

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James): Yes sir.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed): You're a wild man, you know that? He's a wild man, you know that? I'll shake your hand.

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) Thank you, sir.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) Yeah. How many bombs have you disarmed?

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) I'm not quite sure.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) Sergeant.

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) Yes?

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) I asked you a question.

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) Eight hundred seventy three.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) Eight hundred and seventy three. Eight hundred and seventy three.

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) Counting today sir, yes.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) That's gotta be a record. What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?

Mr. RENNER: (Staff Sergeant William James) The way you don't die, sir.

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) That's a good one. That's spoken like a wild man. That's good.

EDELSTEIN: "The Hurt Locker" dramatizes what other Iraq films haven't -that innocent civilians can buckle under the pressure too, freezing in their cars or striding up to overanxious troops with bizarre pleasantries. The movie is so disorienting, you never guess who has a detonator or who'll end up dead. Name actors, memorably Ralph Fiennes as a brusque private contractor, pop up and go out with shocking speed. The less-known actors keep you guessing too. Renner doesn't overplay James's hot dog persona. The character's focus is on the explosives, with no wasted motions, no grandstanding. And Mackie's Sanborn is so infuriated by Renner's lack of caution, there's at least a chance he'll engineer an accident and take out his comrade himself. It's only after the film ends and your fight-or-flight instincts ebb that you might wonder about the movie's politics, or lack of them.

The question of what these men are doing in a culture they don't understand with a language they can't speak and people they can't read hangs in the air but is never posed. Yet maybe that's why "The Hurt Locker" rises above its didactic counterparts. Kathryn Bigelow has always been enthralled by the macho warrior, the existential daredevil, and she's so deep inside these soldiers' testosterone-soaked psyches that the question of why has no meaning.

Sensation is all — and this is, in all senses, a sensational film.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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