Movie Review: 'Stop-Loss'
That the film was directed not by some veteran of the action genre but by a woman for her sophomore effort makes the accomplishment all the more remarkable.
The second feature from director Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") begins with a literal bang. American soldiers manning a checkpoint in Tikrit, Iraq, are fired on from a passing vehicle. They jump into their Humvees and give pursuit, only to find themselves in a murderous ambush.
In an action sequence that ranks up there with the Omaha Beach landing from "Saving Private Ryan," Sgt. Brandon King ( Ryan Phillippe), rallies his men, locates lost and isolated members of his unit, collects the dead and makes a getaway. But King, a devoted leader, is shaken by the casualties they've taken.
Next thing you know, King and his fellows are returning home to Brazos, Texas, where a parade, cold beer and hot girls await them. It's an excuse to put on their cowboy hats, drink until they can't see straight and beat the hell out of any guy who starts sniffing around their women.
That they've made it back in one piece doesn't mean they're not wounded. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can't seem to get enough of alcohol or brawling. King's best friend, Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), gets blotto and abandons his girlfriend, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), so that he can dig a shallow foxhole in his front yard. There he curls up in his underwear, cradling a bottle and a loaded handgun.
These scenes feel less like a Hollywood movie than like life observed. Peirce often employs handheld cameras that mimic the intimate style of the videos made by the soldiers themselves as records of their war experience. Her players uncannily evoke the desperation, relief and sometimes violent release of men who have too long bottled up their anxiety - and who identify with one another with an intensity that cannot be matched by "civilian" relationships.
The first 40 minutes of "Stop-Loss" are so vividly, painfully "real" that when the plot proper kicks in, it's a bit of a letdown.
The screenplay by Peirce and Mark Richard centers on "stop-loss," the policy that allows the military to retain personnel even after they've served their full enlistment. King discovers this the hard way when he asks for his discharge papers and is told that he's being sent back to Iraq.
With no right of appeal, King makes the decision to drive to Washington to present his case to his senator. That requires him to go AWOL, making him a fugitive. He's accompanied by Michelle, who lends her car and moral support.
In this extended road trip "Stop-Loss" takes some melodramatic and predictable turns. King sees the family of a unit member lost in combat, visits a fellow soldier (Victor Rasuk) who sits blind and legless in a hospital and finds himself in the stop-loss underground, a fugitive migration of deserters making their way to Canada.
While obviously admiring the valor and devotion of our fighting men and women, "Stop-Loss" makes no judgment about the rightness of the war in Iraq. But it generates a good deal of contempt for a system that rewards its soldiers by betraying them. A credit at the end of the film estimates that 81,000 soldiers have been stop-lossed back to Iraq.
The technical credits are first-rate and the performances consistently strong. Phillippe ("Breach," "Flags of Our Fathers") is an underrated leading man who fully inhabits his characters without a lot of razzle dazzle and Gordon-Levitt, late of "Third Rock from the Sun," delivers yet another in his impressive collection of flawed young men.
By comparison, the female characters are little more than window dressing, though Cornish does find substance in Michelle's righteous rebelliousness.
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