Auds heretofore resistant to Iraq War-themed pics likely won’t be lured to the megaplexes by “Stop-Loss,” a wildly uneven drama, by turns sincere and synthetic, about a decorated Army sergeant whose homecoming is cut short when he’s unexpectedly ordered back to the war zone. Helmer Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), working from a script she co-wrote with Mark Richard, charts a bumpy road trip through familiar territory where vividly drawn characters rub shoulders with stock stereotypes, and persuasive verisimilitude is too often overshadowed by contrivance. Expect a short tour of duty in theaters before a quick transfer to homevid.
Opening minutes crackle with energy, as Peirce and ace lenser Chris Menges employ variegated film stocks to create faux homevideos supposedly shot, edited and scored by U. S. troops in Iraq (a fact-based conceit they sporadically reprise throughout, with steadily diminishing effect). But this testosterone-fueled montage quickly gives way to an impressively staged and powerfully kinetic battle in Tikrit, as Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his men pursue insurgents who have fled their roadblock. King displays courage under fire, but some of his men (and a few innocent bystanders) don’t survive the deadly encounter.
Shortly thereafter, King and a few buddies are shipped back to their warmly welcoming friends and family in the small town of Brazos, Texas (much of “Stop-Loss” was shot in and around Austin). King is proud to receive both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star from a visiting senator (vet stage and screen actor Josef Sommer, making the absolute most of minimal screen time), but he’s more interested in simply returning to civilian life.
Unfortunately, his discharge is delayed by “stop-loss,” a controversial policy whereby the military can indefinitely extend enlistments and send soldiers back for second or third tours in Iraq. Peirce and Richard bend over backward to portray King as a model soldier and genuine patriot who rebels against the stop-loss order not because of cowardice or politics, but because he feels personally betrayed by a government he’s already served far beyond the call of duty.
This characterization may enable some otherwise disapproving auds to accept King’s impulsive decision to go AWOL. Accompanied by Michele (Abbie Cornish), the girlfriend of King’s more conventionally gung-ho buddy Steve (Channing Tatum), the angry soldier sets out for Washington, D.C., in the naive hope that he can plead his case to the senator who recently honored him. Along the way, he takes side trips to visit and/or honor former comrades, even as he remains the target of a nationwide manhunt.
Peirce reportedly was inspired to make “Stop-Loss” by her brother’s experiences serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by accounts of real-life soldiers who defied their stop-loss orders. And yet, huge swaths of her pic play like mash-ups of features from the 1970s and early ’80s about distressed or disturbed Vietnam War veterans. Indeed, the more dedicated deconstructionists in the audience will identify various influences reflected here, ranging from the blatantly obvious (“The Deer Hunter”) to the relatively obscure (“Heroes,” Jeremy Kagan’s 1977 cross-country odyssey with Henry Winkler as a troubled vet). There’s even a hint of “First Blood” in a scene where King opens up a can of whup-ass on punks who break into his car and trigger his wartime flashback.
Phillippe is creditable and credible — he even manages a convincing Texas twang — and there are standout supporting performances by Tatum (despite his lack of an equally believable drawl), Victor Rasuk (as a battle-scarred Hispanic soldier) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a fellow Iraq vet who finds peace can be hell). But Ciaran Hinds is criminally underused as King’s supportive father, and even some of the better actors are hamstrung by the script’s cliches; at least one key character is so obviously fated for an unhappy ending, he might as well have a vulture perched on his shoulder.
The ending of “Stop-Loss” may be attacked by some critics (especially those with a political agenda) as a bases-covering cop-out. But it’s actually one of the most dramatically and emotionally sound elements in the entire pic. More’s the pity, then, that so much of what precedes this finale seems secondhand and second-guessed, the work of well-intentioned filmmakers whose stumbling efforts suggest that, much like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War won’t inspire truly great and substantial dramas until the passing of time allows for perspective.
Credit lenser Menges and production designer David Wasco for giving pic (including battle scenes shot in Morocco) at least a patina of truth.