Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) lives for this stuff. And could easily die for it, too.
He is the leader of an American bomb squad in 2004 Baghdad, a man with steely nerves who looks like he's preparing for a space walk when he puts on an 80-pound protective suit and bubble helmet but instead strides into the heart of detonation darkness.
In The Hurt Locker, James joins Bravo Company with 38 days left in its Baghdad rotation. That's an eternity when improvised explosive devices can be anywhere, from suspicious wires poking up from a trash bag to an abandoned car or even, sadly and sickly, a corpse with explosives sunk into the chest cavity.
He is the one trying to clip the wires with a pair of pliers - really - while his subordinates, Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), keep watch. They've been called in by the rest of the military, which then retreats to safety.
Sanborn initially is incensed by what he considers James' recklessness, while anxiety and fear gnaw at Eldridge. Turning the Army slogan on its ear, he asks, "What if all I can be is dead on the side of the road?"
Prowling the street as James searches a car that could blow them all to kingdom come, Eldridge sees a man with a video camera recording the scene and worries he's about to end up on YouTube.
The Hurt Locker follows them as the days count down and the intoxicating, paralyzing danger and dance with death keep advancing.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker is the first Iraq-war movie to get it right. Boal, embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad in one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad, also wrote the story that became the basis for the movie In the Valley of Elah, which earned Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nomination.
This, however, is a dusty-boots-on-the-ground view of life with Army explosive-ordnance-disposal - or EOD - techs, and its focus is tight, tense, and free of discussion about whether America should be in Iraq or Afghanistan.
It's about removing ammo from a dead man's vest and having to spit on it and rub the blood off, lest it jam a weapon. It's about blowing off steam with booze and brawling and trying not to die.
The Hurt Locker, filmed in and around Amman, Jordan, separates itself from the war movies or dramas about returning home that have underwhelmed audiences. Bigelow and Boal share the agony and the adrenalin, and capitalize on an excellent cast.
A few famous faces turn up in extended cameos, but The Hurt Locker belongs to its trio of leading actors.
Renner expertly tempers his character's bravado, courage, and doggedness with a streak of tenderness, while Geraghty seems to quicken his heartbeat as his dread mounts, and Mackie emotionally conveys his character's change of heart about life outside the Army.
Bigelow may be a woman, but she's no rom-com specialist or shrinking violet, not with movies to her credit such as K-19: The Widowmaker, about a jinxed Soviet sub; Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop, and the action thriller Point Break, with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze.
She has made an action movie about the IEDs that don't go off because some fearless unit disarmed them and the ones that do, no matter how hard the men try. Given how young the movie year is, Oscar buzz might be premature but it certainly is warranted.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is movie editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.