“The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” - Chris Hedges
Baghdad, 2004 we see several US soldiers clearing a busy street as the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit uses a remote controlled machine to search for bombs. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), controlling the machine, finds an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) hidden in trash bags. Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) sees the IED via camera and identifies it. Sanborn brings the machine back and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) attaches a small wagon to the back of the machine. Inside the wagon is a detonator, which they will use to clear the bomb. Sanborn moves the machine and wagon back over to the bomb, but one of the wheels falls off of the wagon. Sanborn detaches the wagon from the machine and brings the machine back, leaving the wagon in the middle of the street. Thompson decides that he will detonate the bomb himself. Sanborn and Eldridge suit him up and put a helmet on him. As Thompson walks to the bomb, a man approaches Sanborn and tries to talk with him. Sanborn forces him away at gunpoint. Thompson picks up the wagon and carries it to the bomb. He places the detonator on the bomb and then starts walking away. As Sanborn and Eldridge joke around, Eldridge sees a man in a nearby shop holding a cell phone. They order the man to drop the phone while Thompson starts to run away. The man detonates the bomb using his phone, killing Thompson before he could reach a safe distance.
Back at Camp Victory, Sanborn finds Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) in a dark room smoking a cigarette while blasting tunes on his boom box. Sanborn welcomes him to Camp Victory (which was recently changed from Liberty to Victory because it sounds better). James has Sanborn help him remove a cover from the window so that he could get some sunshine. Sanborn says that the covers are used to protect them from mortars, but James points out that they could come in through the roof. James will be Thompson’s replacement as leader of the EOD unit.
Sanborn, Eldridge, and James drive out to the city. We see that they have 38 days left in service. They are called to meet up with other soldiers on a street. When they arrive, the locals stare at them on balconies and out windows. There is no one on the street. Trash covers a lot of the ground. They cautiously walk down the street and find an abandoned humvee. A short distance away are a group of soldiers hiding down an alley. They tell James that one of their informants spotted wires around the corner. James has Eldridge and Sanborn suit him up. Sanborn says that it’s dangerous not to send the machine first since they don’t even know what kind of bomb it is. James doesn’t seem the least bit worried and casually walks down the street. James sets off a smoke grenade to create a diversion, which makes it difficult for Sanborn and Eldridge to cover him. James walks to an intersection, which other soldiers have blocked off. A taxi speeds through the roadblock and screeches to a halt when James points his pistol at the driver. James shoots around the car and shoots out the windshield to show that he will kill him unless he goes away. The driver backs away, where the other soldiers remove him from the vehicle and subdue him.
James continues to walk around the corner until he spots an IED hidden on the ground. He disarms it and says that everything’s fine, but then sees a wire leading from the bomb to somewhere else. He follows the wire to the middle of the street and sees that the wire branches out more. He pulls on the wire and pulls up several more IEDs hidden around him. The bomb maker, who has been watching James the entire time, runs out of a building and passes by James (who has disarmed the rest of the bombs). James walks back to the soldiers and is taken out of the suit.
At Camp Victory, while Eldridge plays a video game, he tells Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo) that he can’t help but keep thinking that he’s going to die. Cambridge, his counselor, tries to get Eldridge to stop thinking about death. James buys a cheap DVD from a kid named Beckham, who works with the merchants set up by the camp. Sanborn runs into James in the bathroom and tells him that he doesn’t like his recklessness. The next day, the EOD unit is called to a suspicious vehicle parked by a UN building. James suits up and walks to the car. A sniper on a rooftop shoots the car, causing it to burst into flames. James uses a fire extinguisher on the car while Sanborn runs to the top of the nearest building to provide cover. Colonel Reed (David Morse) and his men have found and subdued the sniper, who has been shot in the chest. Even though the sniper has a survivable wound, Reed has his men kill him. James opens the trunk of the car and finds that it is filled with IEDs. He takes off his suit and helmet, saying that if he’s going to die, he might as well die comfortably. James goes back to the car without any protection. As he searches the car for the detonator, Sanborn and Eldridge spot two suspicious men nearby. Soon enough, more people start to show up and watch the soldiers. Sanborn tells James that they need to move out. James removes his radio and continues to search the car. Three men in a nearby tower catch Sanborn’s attention. They seem to wave to another man nearby, who had been videotaping the soldiers. James finds the detonator and removes it, disarming the bomb. Afterwards, Sanborn punches James in the face for taking off his radio. Reed shakes James hand for being a wild man and asks how many bombs he has disarmed. James states that including today, it’s been 873.
While smoking by himself, James runs into Beckham. James complains about the DVD he got being too shaky and out of focus. Since Beckham is a soccer player, James comes up with a game if he can kick the ball past Beckham, he’s going to keep his soccer ball. If Beckham stops the ball, he’ll give him five bucks. Beckham stops the ball and gets five bucks. James also gives him some extra money for another DVD, but wants one with quality. Eldridge works on a humvee and Cambridge asks him how he’s getting along with his unit. Eldridge is worried that James is going to get him killed. He wants Cambridge to come out with the unit on one of their missions to see exactly what he’s going through. Cambridge promises to do so if the opportunity presents itself.
23 days left in service Eldridge, Sanborn, and James test out charges in the desert. After the first explosion, James goes down to retrieve his gloves. Sanborn takes out a charge and seriously contemplates killing James, since charges misfire all the time and James is too dangerous. He tries to get Eldridge to go along with the idea, but they don’t go through with it. The three of them drive away and come across a group of armed men in an SUV. Sanborn and James approach while Eldridge provides cover with the mounted gun in the humvee. After disarming the men, they realize that they are contractors. The leader (Ralph Fiennes) states that they have a flat tire and need assistance. They have a spare tire but no wrench, due to one of his men throwing it at someone. Eldridge, Sanborn, and James relax while one of the contractors uses their wrench to change the tire. The leader states that they are transporting two men across the desert for money. One of the contractors goes back to the humvee to get a bigger wrench when he’s suddenly shot in the back by a sniper. Everyone fires into the hills but have no idea where the sniper is. The captured men try to run away, but the leader kills them before they can get too far. Everyone moves behind a hill for cover.
A contractor gets on the mounted gun and wastes the ammo firing blindly. When he finally stops, he’s shot in the neck. The leader sets up a sniper rifle and they try to locate the enemy sniper. They spot a building off in the distance; two men on the roof, two men inside. The leader fires at the men but misses. While trying to set up his next shot, the leader is shot dead by the sniper (who fired from inside the building). The soldiers call in for reinforcements, but it’s going to be a while until they get there. Sanborn gets on the rifle while James spots for him. They run out of ammo and Eldridge hands him another magazine from the leader’s corpse. However, the blood makes it jam. James notices that Eldridge is scared and helps calm him down while they clean the bullets. Sanborn loads the rifle and manages to shoot one of the men on the roof. The other rooftop man tries to run away, but Sanborn shoots him in the back. Sanborn also manages to kill the sniper. The soldiers wait to get a clean shot at the last man. As time passes, James and Sanborn get dehydrated. Eldridge gives them a juice pack, which James lets Sanborn have. Eldridge sees a bunch of animals on a bridge behind their position. Amongst the animals is the last shooter. Eldridge sees him and shoots him dead.
The soldiers go back to Camp Victory and horse around while getting drunk. James punches Sanborn since he knows he hates him. Sanborn finds a crate of James’ possessions. James has a picture of his son. He talks about getting his girlfriend pregnant and marrying her. They got a divorce, but she’s still living in the house, so he doesn’t really know what the status of their relationship is. Sanborn talks about his girl back home and how she wants babies. He doesn’t feel he’s ready yet though. Sanborn finds bomb parts in the crate. It seems that James has a habit of collecting things that have almost killed him (bomb parts and his wedding ring). James allows Sanborn to punch him back. They playfully fight and hit each other, but then things turn serious when James sits on Sanborn and refuses to get up. Sanborn pulls a knife and holds it to James’ throat. James presses the knife closer to his own throat, but eventually relents. James helps the drunken Sanborn get back to his bunk. Sanborn wonders if he has what it takes to put on the suit. James tells him “hell no” and leaves. James drinks a little bit more before going to sleep with his helmet on.
16 days left in service Cambridge runs up to the EOD unit and asks to come along on their next mission. Eldridge is glad that Cambridge is with them and gains some confidence. The unit is called to a building to pick up a bomb. Security hasn’t cleared the building yet, and so they will have to do so on their own. As they move room to room, they find a plethora of explosives. James finds the bloody corpse of a boy in a room. He has been murdered and his body is being used as a bomb. James thinks that the dead boy is Beckham, but Sanborn tells him that he might be wrong, since all the kid merchants look the same. James orders Eldridge and Sanborn to remove the explosives so that they can blow up the building. He places charges on the boy’s body but then starts to break down. He cancels the destruction of the building. James cuts the wires in the boy’s chest and then pulls the bomb out of his stomach, disarming it. During this time, Cambridge has remained outside of the building and has talked to a group of men loading bags into a cart. He talks friendly to them and tries to get them to leave. James carries the boy’s body outside to transport back to base. More people gather around Cambridge, who finally has to force them back at gunpoint. They leave, and he doesn’t notice that they left an IED right next to him. The bomb goes off, killing Cambridge and blasting him into pieces. Eldridge desperately searches for him, but James tells him that he’s dead.
At Camp Victory, James calls his wife Connie (Evangeline Lilly) at home. She picks up the phone while carrying their son. James doesn’t know what to say and hangs up. Later on, James walks by the local merchants. He goes to the DVD merchant and asks about Beckham. The man claims not to know English. James tells the soldier in charge of the merchant area that the DVD merchant could be dangerous. The soldier though can’t remove him without his superior’s authority. At night, as the DVD merchant packs up his truck to go home, James sneaks into his truck and holds him at gunpoint. He makes the merchant drive to Beckham’s house. James tells the merchant to wait outside, but he drives away as soon as he has the chance. James enters the house, looking for the people responsible for Beckham’s murder. He finds that a professor lives inside with his wife. James is attacked by the wife and leaves the house. He runs back to Camp Victory and is let back in once he identifies himself as a soldier. The EOD unit has been assigned to assess a tank explosion and identify how it was done. The team arrives at the blast zone, which is chaotic with people running around and people on the ground badly wounded. Buildings, trees, and cars are still on fire. James knows that the explosion was made by remote, and he identifies a vantage point that the bomber could’ve used to oversee the blast. He orders Sanborn and Eldridge to come with him to search for the bomber.
The three venture out into the darkness by themselves. James decides for them to split up and search three different alleys. While searching the alleys, gunfire erupts from Eldridge’s alley. James and Sanborn run into his alley and find a dead man on the ground. Eldridge killed him, but has been overpowered and kidnapped by two more men. James and Sanborn give pursuit. They eventually find the men and fire upon them. The two men have been shot to death, and Eldridge has been shot in the leg. After they get back to base, James takes a shower in his full uniform, washing the blood away. Later on, James walks around the camp and is approached by Beckham. Since he could’ve been killed due to his personal attachment, James ignores him. Eldridge is put in a helicopter. Before he leaves, Eldridge blames James for shooting him and making them search for the bomber when it wasn’t their job. He says that James made them do the search just out of his own desire for adrenaline. Eldridge says a nicer goodbye to Sanborn before leaving.
2 days left in service the EOD unit is called to another situation. A man approached a checkpoint with a bomb strapped to his chest. He says that someone else put the bomb on him and asks for the soldiers to remove it. Sanborn tells James that the man is likely a suicide bomber who’s trying to lure someone close to him. James has a translator order the man to slowly open his shirt. He does, revealing himself to be strapped with lots of explosives. James orders his fellow soldiers back to a safe distance. Even though they’ve had their differences, Sanborn tells James that it’s suicide to attempt to disarm the man. The other soldiers are more than willing to kill the man. Knowing the danger, James has Sanborn suit him up and put on his helmet. James approaches the man and says that if he doesn’t put his hands behind his head, he will shoot him. The man says that he has four children and does not want to die. He puts his hands behind his head. The bomb has a timer for two minutes. Since there are so many wires, James asks for Sanborn to get him some bolt cutters. Sanborn runs over with bolt cutters and stays by James’ side, holding the man at gunpoint. The bomb has been strapped to the man’s body with steel and padlocks. The bolt cutters don’t work. Time ticks away. James tells Sanborn to run back to a safe distance while he stays behind. Sanborn runs back and orders everyone to take cover. James gets one lock open, but there are simply too many locks left. With no choice, James tells the man that he’s sorry and runs away. The man explodes, causing debris to knock James over.
James, bloodied, opens his helmet and sees a kite flying in the sky. James and Sanborn head back to base. On the drive, Sanborn says that he hates this place. He knows that he will die and no one will even care. James tries to tell him that he still has a future, but Sanborn knows that he’s done. He asks James how he can do this job knowing that each time they roll the dice of life and death. James says that he just doesn’t think about it. Still, he doesn’t know why he does this job. Kids throw rocks at their humvee as they drive.
Some time later, we see James back in the US shopping at a grocery store with Connie. She asks him to get some cereal. He gets to the cereal aisle but doesn’t know which one to get. At home, he does some yard work. He sits alone while the TV is static in the background. While preparing dinner, James talks about a suicide bomber passing out free candy to kids in Iraq. He detonated himself, killing about 59 people. He tells Connie that the army needs more bomb techs. Connie doesn’t want to hear about it. James plays with his baby boy and his toys. He tells his son that the things he loves now might not seem so special anymore when he grows up. James realizes that he only loves one thing. He goes back to the EOD unit in Iraq full of energy. He has 365 days until his service is over. The film ends with James, suited up, walking down the street in search of another bomb.
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