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The Hurt Locker opens with a quotation from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, a best-selling 2002 book by New York Times war correspondent and journalist Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), a battle-tested veteran, arrives as a new team leader of a US Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit during the early stages of the post-invasion period in Iraq in 2004, replacing Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce), who is killed by a radio-controlled 155mm improvised explosive device (IED) in Baghdad. The rest of his team consists of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).
James's maverick methods and attitude lead Sanborn and Eldridge to consider him reckless, and tensions mount. When they are assigned to destroy some of the explosives in a remote desert area, James returns to the detonation site to pick up his gloves. Sanborn openly contemplates killing James by "accidentally" triggering the explosion, making Eldridge very uncomfortable, but he does nothing.
Driving back to the Camp Victory in their Humvee, the team encounter a Ford Excursion with a flat tire and five armed men in Arab garb. After a tense encounter, the men reveal themselves to be Private Military Contractors, British mercenaries. They have captured two prisoners featured on the most-wanted Iraqi playing cards. The entire group suddenly comes under fire. When the prisoners attempt to escape in the confusion, the leader of the mercenaries (Ralph Fiennes) suddenly remembers the bounty for them is "dead or alive", so he shoots them. Three mercenaries are killed by enemy snipers, including the leader. Sanborn and James borrow a Barrett .50 cal to dispatch three attackers, while Eldridge kills a fourth.
During a raid on a warehouse, James discovers the body of a young boy which has been surgically implanted with an unexploded bomb. James believes it to be "Beckham" (Christopher Sayegh), a young Iraqi counterfeit DVD seller he had previously befriended. During evacuation, Lieutenant Colonel John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), the camp's psychiatrist and a friend of Eldridge, is killed in an explosion. Eldridge blames himself for the Colonel's death. Later, James leaves the military compound seeking revenge for Beckham and breaks into the house of an Iraqi professor, but his search leads to nothing and he leaves.
Called to a petrol tanker detonation, James decides on his own to hunt for the insurgents responsible, guessing they are still in the immediate area. Sanborn protests, but when James heads out, he and Eldridge reluctantly follow. After they split up, Eldridge is captured by insurgents. James and Sanborn rescue him but accidentally shoot him in the leg.
The following morning, James is approached by Beckham. The young boy tries to play soccer with James and sell more DVDs to him, but the soldier walks by without saying a word. Before being airlifted for surgery, Eldridge angrily blames James for his injury.
James and Sanborn's unit is called to another mission in their last 2 days of their rotation, where an innocent Iraqi civilian has had a bomb vest strapped to his chest. James attempts to cut off the locks to remove the vest, but there are too many, forcing him to abandon the man, who is killed when the bomb detonates. Sanborn becomes emotional and confesses to James that he can no longer cope with the pressure, and wants to return home and have a son.
After Bravo Company's rotation ends, James returns home to his wife, Connie (Evangeline Lilly), and their infant son. However, the boredom of routine civilian life agitates him. One night, James confesses to his son that there is only one thing that he knows he loves. Shortly thereafter, he is starting another tour of duty serving with another EOD unit as they are just starting their 365 day rotation.