You couldn’t pay most people enough money to do what SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) does with all the nonchalance of a man picking up a tin can from the sidewalk.

The leader of a US Army EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Unit in Iraq, James treats his job of diffusing roadside bombs more as a hobby, almost a summertime walk through a park.

James is an adrenaline junkie and a loner, hooked on war the way some people are hooked on heroin. He’s so wrapped up in it that he struggles to even communicate with his fellow soldiers. He’s a man who lives to remove blasting caps from handmade bombs, but who has trouble navigating the cereal aisle in the grocery store back home.

It’s a breakthrough performance for Renner, who has already won seven acting awards for his portrayal. The subtlety and control that he brings to SSgt. James creates a character that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

But The Hurt Locker is even more of a breakthrough masterpiece for director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Together they made one hell of a movie:

It breaks all the rules. There’s no beginning, middle, or end to speak of, and Bigelow also (thankfully) is more than happy to let virtually every scene play itself out– there’s no over-editing or dumbing-down to cater to our shrinking attention span. Plus (bonus!) there’s virtually no score– all the emotions you feel come from what’s happening in the movie, not a sappy orchestral arrangement.

It’s a heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Even if SSgt James is calm and casual, you won’t be. There will be more than one occasion where you’ll realize your gripping the armrests (or couch pillows) so hard that your fingernails hurt.

It’s as close to real as you can get. Drawn from Boal’s several months as an embedded reporter in Iraq, The Hurt Locker drops you off in the middle of a hot, hostile Iraqi street, and leaves you there– offering a level of gritty, sun-baked, sand-caked realism previously found only in documentaries.

It’s more than ‘just a war movie’. This is not Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line (though Bigelow’s ex, James Cameron, thinks The Hurt Locker could become this generation’s Platoon.) It’s a movie that’s more about one man’s struggles with his ‘chosen profession’ and its ramifications than it is about combat and survival.

Put all that together and you have what’s easily one of the best movies–not only of 2009, but of the entire decade.

5/5 stars