Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, "Flags of Our Fathers," "Breach") returns to hometown Brazos, Texas, a hero from the Iraq war. He and several of his squad members, including best friend Steve (Channing Tatum, "Coach Carter," "Step Up 2 the Streets") are feted with a parade and awarded medals by a U.S. Senator (Josef Sommer, "X-Men: The Last Stand's" President"). Having done his duty, Brandon is ready to return to civilian life, but when he arrives at base for his discharge, commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant, HBO's "Deadwood," "Live Free or Die Hard"), informs him he's headed back to Iraq. Furious and indignant, Brandon rebels, determined to fight the back door draft, a policy known as "Stop Loss."
Almost a decade after her Oscar winning "Boys Don't Cry," cowriter (with Mark Richard)/director Kimberly Peirce returns with a good film with a subject - the Iraq War - the American movie going public keeps rejecting. Hopefully Peirce's movie will turn the tide, as "Stop Loss" not only has something new to say, it is in many ways a smaller, modern day "Deer Hunter."
"Stop Loss" begins with imagery we've grown all too familiar with - the self-documented war video of soldiers in Iraq set to screaming rock ("Bodies" by Drowning Pool is emblematic). But this device is used merely to establish Brandon's squad and set up the shattering event its survivors will deal with back home. A car approaches a checkpoint too quickly. Brandon cautions his men to hold fire and the car's inhabitants appear innocent, but they have been a decoy for a second vehicle which approaches firing. King's squad follows, as they have been trained to do, and are led into an ambush. Men are killed and Brandon is forced to kill women and children in order to save his best friend inside an apartment building.
On the night of their return, Brandon enjoys the Texan celebration thrown at the local dance hall bar with his family, but Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "The Lookout") must be saved from a drunken brawl and Steve's girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish, "Somersault," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age") calls for help later in the evening, when her wasted fiance brandishes a weapon. Ever vigilant, Brandon continues to try and keep his squad on a straight path, so when he goes AWOL with Michelle, who's offered to get him his start on the road, reactions are divisive.
And Brandon discovers a whole new subculture - soldiers 'laying low' with their families in cheap motels, always on the run, unable to make a living but alive. The helpful senator now hiding behind a receptionist who informs him that the senator cannot talk to a felon. The New York lawyer who, for a fee, will get him into Canada but with a tradeoff of completely relinquishing his past - family, friends, home. A visit to Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk, "Raising Victor Vargas," "Lords of Dogtown") at a VA Hospital finds the young man, now a paraplegic, feisty and optimistic. A visit from Steve brings a best friend enraged and betrayed that Brandon would ever abandon the military, his squad.
Phillippe, an actor whose looks obscure his talent for many (check out his fine work in "The Way of the Gun," "Igby Goes Down" or "Crash"), is dead on in his portrayal of a golden boy who takes an unexpected road. His character is heroic without being showy, 'good' without being saintly. Abbie Cornish is also good, a down to earth blue collar home town girl with a mind of her own. Channing Tatum is the town jock who doesn't question authority, his Steve an odd match with Michelle, perhaps, but these kids are young. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has matured nicely into roles like those in "Mysterious Skin," "Brick" and "The Lookout," but his role here is a bit of a cliche and there is not too much he can do to break away from that. Timothy Olyphant has a cooly enigmatic presence as the tough commanding officer.
With "Stop-Loss," Peirce takes a look at the war from the inside out, then posits a tough question - when is it right to not do what is largely and legally considered right? The film's conclusion may strike some as a cop out, but Peirce stays true to her principle character - the journey provides the message, the destination sadness and outrage.
Robin did not see this film.
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