- After starting with such promise, this night goes south for Brandon and his best friends, back from Iraq. Kind of like Stop Loss itself.
Stop Loss (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
It's been nine years since Kimberly Peirce's critically acclaimed, controversial debut Boys Don't Cry lit up the indie film world, so her mere return to theaters is cause for celebration. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned military-themed drama Stop Loss may offer too little, too late to make it much of a party.
Managing to somehow waste a rich and locally all-too-relevant premise and a trio of Hollywood's more interesting young stars, Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard offer a ham-fisted script that results in a film with a lot on its mind but no idea quite what it wants to say or how to say it. Ryan Phillippe stars as Sgt. Brandon King, an all-American leader who steers a squad of young troops into a dangerous situation in Iraq with deadly consequences. After completing his tour of duty, Brandon and his best friends, fellow soldiers Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), return home to the same Texas town and resume the lives they left behind. That, of course, is not as easy as it sounds.
On his first night back, Tommy gets into a drunken fistfight and later thinks nothing of driving his car into a telephone pole. Meanwhile, Steve slaps his girlfriend and digs a trench in her front yard so he can sleep in his underwear, clutching his gun like a security blanket. The most well-adjusted of the trio, Brandon is scheduled to be discharged when he's informed that he's been "stop lossed," a legal loophole allowing the president to extend military service contracts during war, essentially enabling a "back-door draft."
Having served his country and honored his commitment, Brandon is understandably pissed that the Army isn't living up to its end of the bargain. But when he complains to his superior officer (Timothy Olyphant), he's threatened with an "attitude readjustment." Before you know it, our war hero has assaulted two other soldiers and gone AWOL with Steve's car and girlfriend. The film then follows their journey as they head toward Washington D.C., where Brandon hopes to ask a favor of a senator (Josef Sommer).
Though the film is billed as an ensemble piece, Brandon is the driving force of the story. Phillippe isn't necessarily the right fit, which requires more than a serviceable presence in the part. It doesn't help that he has little chemistry with his bland travel companion (Abbie Cornish), whose character is especially underwritten. Tatum fares better as a brute loyal to both his friends and the flag, but the normally excellent Gordon-Levitt is especially hampered by his one-dimensional character, whose fate couldn't be more obvious.
Despite a strong opening in Iraq that combines the gritty realism of Black Hawk Down with the raw adrenaline of The Kingdom, Stop Loss quickly devolves into an indecisive character study in which none of the characters are especially likeable. Peirce's film aims to take a probing look at the devastating psychological impact of the war on those who stand on the front lines, but it never quite hits the target.
You can't fault Peirce for trying, but unfortunately, Stop Loss misses the opportunity to make a powerful political point. As it stands, it's not quite the failure of Home of the Brave, but its message isn't nearly as profound as In the Valley of Elah. You'd be wise not to enlist.