Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ciarán Hinds, Timothy Olyphant, Victor Rasuk, Rob Brown, Mamie Gummer, Josef Sommer, Alex Frost. (2008, R, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 28, 2008
What if Johnny never comes marching home again, hurrah, hurray? That's the tragic, combustible, real-world fuse that burns throughout Stop-Loss. What if you gave an endless war, and no one ever got off the tour bus for longer than it takes to get drunk, scared, and go bang, go AWOL, or go mad? Stop-Loss takes its title from the military's term for its loophole policy that can require soldiers to serve multiple back-to-back tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The phrase also pretty much sums up the mood of the American taxpayer at the moment: We don't seem to be stopping much of anything, but as of this week, we've lost 4,000-plus servicemen and -women. Peirce's last time behind the camera, with the accolade-magnet Boys Don't Cry, garnered the filmmaker enough cluttered mantel space to hold out for seven years before finally choosing screenwriter Mark Richard and embarking on her second feature, which opens smack-dab in the proverbial fog (or sand, actually) of war. Tikrit-based Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Phillippe) and the men in his squadron are sweltering and bored while manning an Iraqi checkpoint but suddenly find themselves in pursuit of a possible carload of insurgents that leads King's squad straight into a textbook alleyway ambush. The next five minutes are almost too horrific to watch if you know anyone Over There, but when the sniper fire winds down and the blood loss carves out tiny Tigris and Euphrates rivers of red in the Persian dirt, King and his surviving squad members are headed home to the Lone Star State (much of the film was shot in and around Austin, doubling for Brazos), back to reality, such as it is, or should be, but, of course, isn't. Stop-lossed almost immediately, King watches his fellow vets attempt to drink, drank, and skank their way back to some semblance of what was; King opts out, though, and goes AWOL with Michele (Cornish), the girlfriend of squaddie Shriver (Tatum), hoping to get to D.C. to plead his case with a potentially sympathetic senator. The road goes on forever, but somehow the party never starts. Phillippe does a dark, searing turn with a character that could have easily been little more than Taps-era hubris, and Gordon-Levitt, as one of King's more fragmented former charges, is riveting and convincingly small-town Texas. Stop-Loss does not deign to do what the audience may expect or want or need; just when it appears cut-and-dried, or locked and, especially, loaded, it turns out Peirce has the goddamn safety on, or the metaphorical turret gunner jams up, or the film throws you another ricochet. Just like real life but not a damn thing like G.I. Joe.