That Stop-Loss wears its generally good intentions on its camo sleeve doesn’t keep it from being consigned to the missed-opportunity file. This military melodrama, Kimberly Peirce’s first film since her award-winning debut, Boys Don’t Cry, centers on golden-boy squad leader Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), whose unit is ambushed in a Tikrit alleyway near the end of his tour and takes grievous casualties. Feted in his Texas hometown on his return from Iraq with his sharpshooting best bud Steve (Channing Tatum), it doesn’t take long for his circle’s combat fatigue to metastasize: Steve drunkenly digs a shallow grave on the lawn of his spooked fiancée (Abbie Cornish), and another surly brother-in-arms (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is tossed out by his new wife and commences using their still-wrapped wedding presents for shotgun practice. Then Brandon is stunned to learn he’s had his contract renewed by the Army via “stop-loss,” a backdoor-draft loophole that the Bush Administration has exercised on an estimated 100,000 personnel. He lashes out, goes AWOL and hits the highway with the aid of Steve’s girl, naïvely hoping for help from his senator but essentially fleeing from the consequences of losing his identity as a soldier.
Peirce and her co-writer, Mark Richard, frontload the movie with this-ain’t-a-simple-antiwar-tract material; before the white-knuckle, bloody combat sequence, Brandon’s men are seen in the breadth of their camaraderie, undergoing Christian baptisms, compulsively videotaping their downtime antics, and singing along to that Toby Keith horseshit. Drinking and dancing with their honeys stateside, they verbalize their experiences only with “We need to drop a 10,000-pound bomb on the Hajiis” bluster, and the silent counter offered is worried looks between the women. Peirce presents the stop-loss tactic as the sole potent wedge between these guys; being blatantly exploited by his country is what drives Brandon to question his bruised but patriotically-correct loyalty. Still, when Phillippe, whose straight-arrow sergeant initially shows few signs of repressed damage, is suddenly blurting out “Fuck the president” in his CO’s office upon learning he’s being redeployed, the lovely but limited actor can’t put forth a credible damburst of fury. And his flight from duty results in a painfully contrived half-a-road movie, complete with a psychotic ass-kicking administered to smash-and-grab car thieves, and minor characters who provide the chorus of political discontent (another desperate, fugitive soldier in a motel, the embittered brother of a dead comrade). The unspoken tension in those early Texas scenes defines Stop-Loss throughout; it knows it wants to defend and illustrate the kinship forged in battle, but keeps the debate about this particular war on the periphery to avoid offending either hawks or doves.
Peirce managed to tastefully mythologize the Brandon Teena tragedy in Boys Don’t Cry on the strength of her actors (pivotally, Chloë Sevigny), and here the bullnecked Tatum and the husky-voiced Cornish supply an impassioned dynamic to their uncertain and underwritten relationship. (Apart, Cornish is scarcely more than a sounding board for Phillippe’s aggrieved outpourings, and when the massive Tatum inevitably comes to blows with his fugitive pal, you expect him to snap Phillippe in half.) Alas, Gordon-Levitt, so resourceful even in middling fare like The Lookout, is playing a generically conceived representative of the walking wounded and is hamstrung into merely staring mournfully into space or boiling over, as required. But carrying his big scene as Brandon’s charge who was blinded and maimed in Tikrit, Victor Rasuk emotionally connects to something larger and truer than the film’s tentative agenda, bubbly and wolfish at receiving visitors, teasing Philippe and gripping his hand with a prosthetic. He even makes a line like “I’d go back, ’cause if I got killed my family would get green cards” sound confessional and not stilted. It’s a performance that would fit in Hal Ashby films like The Last Detail and Coming Home, which the press notes cite as influences on Peirce. How so? Reliant on cutting from one hyper, confrontational close-up to another, and shamelessly springing a withheld trauma from the opening ambush as a third-act flashback, she all too frequently mutes the notes of naturalism and social anger those ’70s touchstones reliably struck, and strands Stop-Loss in hot-topic limbo.