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Some people have the luck or curse to do what they're supremely good at; and the exercise of that skill gives pleasure, even if the job carries the imminent risk of death. The talent that another man might have for making bombs, James has for finding and silencing them. It's not just his job, it's his vocation. Whether he's stripping a car piece by piece or cutting open a boy's stomach to pull out an IED, James has the instincts, let's say the genius, to do it. "Mission accomplished" is not a Presidential PR phrase, it's a definition of this man at work. It'd be a crime not to apply his expertise to saving lives. James is also in it for the fun. We learn that he has a wife and a baby back home, but Baghdad is where he feels most alive performing a task that could end his life. If defusing bombs isn't a drug for James, it's a stimulant, pure caffeine, his headiest, most essential adrenaline.
A genius makes his own rules; a soldier isn't supposed to. Before examining the suspect car, James doffs his space suit; at this close range it won't offer much protection. ("If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna be comfortable.") More recklessly, he tosses his headset on the ground, so he doesn't have to hear Sanborn's pleas to get the hell out of there. Groups of men have gathered at storefronts, on the balconies and roofs of apartment houses, and James' lone-gunman bravado could jeopardize the mission. But a genius has to stay focused. There's got to be a bomb in here somewhere; ah, under the hood. Though his mates aren't crazy about his methods Sanborn sucker-punches James in the jaw after this little escapade they'll come to appreciate him. "Not very good with people, are you," Eldridge tells James, "but you're a good warrior."
The heart of the film is a half dozen sequences, most of them on bomb-squad detail, one long, terrific one showing the unit holed up with some Brit mercenaries (led by Ralph Fiennes, the star of Bigelow's 1995 futuristic movie Strange Days) fighting off fire from al-Qaeda-in-Iraq types out in the desert. Boal and Bigelow know that there's enough tension in the act of walking up to a bomb and trying to defuse it; they don't have to amp up the suspense with theatrics.
The appearances by some familiar faces Fiennes, Guy Pearce, David Morse are all too brief. But the three leads don't make you long for star power. They're fine: Mackie as the veteran who plays by the book, Geraghty as the subordinate with jumpy nerves, and especially Renner. He's had supporting roles in North Country, 28 Weeks Later and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but this is his big chance, and he seizes it. He's ordinary, pudgy-faced, quiet, and at first seems to lack the screen charisma to carry a film. That supposition vanishes in a few minutes, as Renner slowly reveals the strength, confidence and unpredictability of a young Russell Crowe. The merging of actor and character is one of the big things to love about this movie. The other is that its tone, of steely calm, takes its cue from the character it so acutely observes. It's as if James was not only the subject of the movie he made it.
Later I may think of a better depiction of the helplessness and heroism attending the U.S. presence in the war on terrorism, but for now I'll say this one's the tops. (See photos of the Venice Film Festival here.