The hybridization of art house and action doesn't happen all that often, but it should, if mashing the two genres makes for film as riveting and rattling as The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow continues her fascination with hazardous occupations - after cops and robbers in Blue Steel and Point Break, submarine runners in K-19: The Widowmaker - with this story of an elite bomb-dismantling squad winding down a tour of duty in Iraq.
"Story" is perhaps misleading, as The Hurt Locker charts a series of missions, some more successful than others, with only the occasional interlude of drunken roughhousing. There's a sameness to the action that perfectly mimics what awaits the explosive ordnance disposal squad every time the three-man team pulls up to a job in their Humvee: every day another bomb, or 10, to dismantle, and every day another chance to get blown into a million itty bits.
The squad is composed of the team leader, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), thrill-seeking and damaged in an unarticulated way; Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), the sensible, upright one; and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), just a kid, really, who is starting to crack under the strain of the ceaseless violence.
With a minimum of expository dialogue at their disposal, all three actors create fully fleshed characters, but it's Renner who emerges as the film's focal point. He inspires sympathy, admiration and aggravation in equal turns as the adrenaline junkie staff sergeant whose reckless methods seem almost cowboy cool - that is, until you realize his death wish has a real danger of catching others in its crosshairs.
There's no moralizing here, no monologuing about why we fight. The Hurt Locker mostly restricts its focus to dramatizing the dirty work of bomb-dismantling in a war zone, and that it does brilliantly. The tension is enough to make you slightly sick, and the overall mood of the thing is deeply dispiriting, but then, nobody ever said that war isn't hell.