The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances.
After leading his men directly into an ambush, Sgt. Brandon King returns home to Texas a decorated, if disconnected hero. He is celebrated by his hometown, along with buddies Steve Shriver and Tommy Burgess. With just a few days before he gets out of the service, Brandon hopes to restart his civilian life. But when he reports to turn in his gear, he learns he is being Stop-Lossed. In layman’s terms, it means he is being involuntarily reenlisted for another tour of duty. Angry over this perceived betrayal, Brandon goes AWOL. He decides to go to Washington and speak to a Senator who promised to help him out. Steve’s fiancé Michelle decides to be his driver. Naturally, the military doesn’t look kindly on deserters, and it’s not long before they send his friends after him. Desperate and on the run, Brandon can’t understand why the country he served would treat him so. It’s a horrible lesson that he and his fellow recruits will soon learn all too well.
For the first ten minutes or so, Stop-Loss crackles along on a bed of preconceived patriotism. We watch fresh faced young men battling ambiguous Arab enemies, rocket launchers sending Hummers – and humans – to a planned pyrotechnical reward. By the time we see the trademark tableau (dead Islamic family, including kids, lying in a pool of blood and bullets), we think this film might be ready to break from the formulaic mold. But alas, director Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry fame) brings the drama back home, and it’s here where Stop-Loss stumbles. In fact, within a short time of landing stateside, the movie meanders into a series of vignettes that replay every tired post-service chestnut ever offered. Over the course of the 105 minute running time we get the doomed alcoholic, the commitment-phobic jarhead, the conscientious objector, the fading Vietnam Vet father and any other stereotype you can stomach.
This doesn’t make Stop-Loss dreadful, just predictable. The moment you hear a commanding officer warn the troops about banned leave conduct – no drunk driving, no wife beating, no sex with underage partners – we recognize the various plot point beats the narrative is going to traverse. Sure enough, Tommy takes his car for an inebriated spin, while Steve’s gal pal suddenly sports a shiner. When combined with the other archetypes abounding (rebel yelling soon to be recruit, compassionate care-giving mother), we get a veritable cornucopia of cornball cinematic extremes. That Peirce manages to keep everything from swerving into parody or direct outrage is commendable. Yet the script by the director and Mark Richard keeps veering into easy answers and simplistic sentiments. In the end, we feel like we’ve witnessed all these war stories - both at home and on the front lines – before.
As for the acting, there is some reason to rejoice. While he’s typically been known as Reese Witherspoon’s ex, Ryan Philippe actually redeems himself as a serious performer – albeit of a decidedly MTV era bent. He looks less like a waifish pretty boy and more like a Lone Star soldier here. Equally engaging, though far more limited in range, is Channing Tatum. Best known for being the badass stud muffin in tween treats like Step Off, he certainly looks the part of a tattooed marksman. But when required to bring the big guns, dramatically speaking, he slips just a little. And while she may have a jailbait Charlize Theron look to her trailer trashiness, Abbie Cornish is a vapid, vacuous female lead. Among the underused and downright forgotten are Ciaran Hinds as Brandon’s worn warrior dad, Timothy Olyphant as the crusty CO, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the consistently tanked up Tommy, and a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Rosanne‘s Laurie Metcalf as a grieving mother.
In fact, the movie is more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study. There is no desire to dig deeper into these men, to see why a series of tours in a remote Arab land turns some young boys into fractured, failed men. Sacrifice is stressed, but not the lingering horrors of being a hired killer. Stop-Loss is not a movie of insight. Instead, it skirts most important issues in favor of more post-adolescent angst. Peirce falls into the typical motion picture parameters. She relies on musical montages, pop culture cues, and the standard shaky-cam suggestion of chaos. And since we don’t have more meaning to the events, we end up losing interest. No amount of pizzazz or flash can permeate the failed policies of George Bush and company, and since the movie only gives the Commander in Chief cursory criticism (and an “F” bomb beratement), its possible points become moot.
This renders Stop-Loss anticlimactic and average. While better than ball buster bravado like Redacted and Rendition, it can’t compete with more serious efforts like In the Valley of Elah. In fact, the film is very much like our mission in Iraq – poorly defined, jingoistic, and destined to be unpopular. While marketing may drive the 20 something demo into theaters, audiences with more life experience will scoff at the black/white pronouncements. It is clear that this war is taking a toll previously unfathomable to those who initiated it. But what’s also evident is that Stop-Loss – as a movie and as a course of action is a failure as well.