Film Review: “Stop-Loss” (***)
Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum in “Stop-Loss.”
Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss” depicts the human side of war. It is an uneven but occasionally searing film about the camaraderie between soldiers, the ingrained rules of battle that can bleed over into the civilian world, and the effects of a semi-obscure regulation that keeps soldiers fighting long after they thought they were home for good.
Ryan Phillippe stars as Sgt. Brandon King, a decorated soldier from West Texas who returns home from Tikrit, Iraq, with his Fort Hood unit, ready to get on with a post-Army life. But war is difficult to leave behind. His childhood friends, fellow soldiers Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both show acute signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Brandon is ready to process out of the Army but learns at the last minute he is being “stop-lossed”: returned to the front lines despite being technically eligible for an honorable discharge. This is too much for Brandon, who disobeys a direct order from his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant of “Deadwood”) and goes AWOL, hoping to talk to his senator about being sent back.
Meanwhile, Tommy is drinking too much and getting in trouble with local police, and Steve, also due to get out soon, ponders a re-enlistment bonus and sniper school to the dismay of his long-suffering fiancee, Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Michelle decides to help Brandon look for options, but few appeal to a small-town guy who wants his life to become less complicated, not more so.
“Stop-Loss” is Peirce’s first film since 1999′s “Boys Don’t Cry,” and she brings some of the same sharp observational skills to these characters as she did with that film. Much of the first act of “Stop-Loss” possesses the look, feel and rhythm of soldier videos from Iraq or Afghanistan. Peirce gets the language and tone of military service and the catchphrases that populate soldiers’ existence with dead-on precision.
Where “Stop-Loss” falls short is when Brandon gets “stop-lossed.” The script becomes filled with explanatory phrases that play like textbook readings, and certain scenarios involving soldiers avoiding stop-loss rely too heavily on exposition. The realism of scenes in Iraq and Texas becomes scarce as “Stop-Loss” moves forward.
Even so, Peirce populated her film with strong performances, particularly from Gordon-Levitt, who imbues Tommy with realistic rage and confusion. Cornish, the Australian actress known best for more delicate roles in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” and “A Good Year,” slips perfectly into her tough rural character.
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