Based on journalist Mark Boal's real experiences following bomb disposal experts in Iraq, The Hurt Locker isn't just a welcome return to big-screen action from director Kathryn Bigelow (who has wrung both fame and infamy from her art with Near Dark, Strange Days and Point Break). It's an assured, confident, swaggering piece of moviemaking that manages to not only evoke every war of the 20th century but also, despite the claims by makers and some reviewers that it's an 'apolitical' film, speaks very specifically to the Iraq war. Even so, plunging us into the thick of things alongside the highly-trained men (and they're all men here) who defuse bombs for the Army, Bigelow and Boal avoid the speeches and postures and long, contemplative talks of home front films like Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah by staying in Iraq, and they shun the loopy, loony formal experiments of Brian De Palma's Redacted. Boal and Bigelow stay laser-focused on one group of men with a singular mission, and make us live in the constant possibility of death. Viewed from half a world away, a bomb is a political concern; viewed from less than a foot away, a bomb's just a high-stakes exercise in problem-solving, where making a mistake means a final, terminal education in the physics of expanding gases.

The Hurt Locker follows three soldiers -- bomb tech James (Jeremy Renner) and his subordinates Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldrige (Brian Geraghty) into the jaws of death; it's all last names in The Hurt Locker, as seen on patches and heard in urgent radio dispatches. Early on, Bigleow establishes that people will be killed in this film -- with a bravura sequence that depicts a bomb's detonation on the macro and micro level, billowing bursts of smoke and pressure and flame intercut with gravel and dust leaping choreographed in lockstep by the pressure wave, as if God had slammed his fist on reality hard to make a point -- and while Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are fine actors, they're also unknown enough to subconsciously let us know that they aren't safe from what may happen.