Friday, June 13, 2008


Review: Stop-Loss
1.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

One of the many ways in which the war in Iraq has been compared to Vietnam is that (if and) when it finally does end, our nation is going to be inhabited by an entire legion of shell-shocked young people. Even now, thousands of men and women who have served on the front lines and watched friends die in a war they don’t necessarily believe in have returned home, never to be the same. Rather than respecting this fact, director/co-writer Kimberly Pierce’s sophomore feature Stop-Loss almost makes a parody of it by presenting flat, stereotypical characters who fail to convince us that they believe in much of anything.

Decorated sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) returns to his generic Texas hometown after a particularly devastating tour of duty in Iraq claimed the lives of more than a few of the soldiers that served under him. Joining him in the homecoming are lifelong friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both of whom conveniently fought in the same outfit. Although he’s viewed as a hero by the citizens of his Bible Belt stomping grounds, the incident overseas has left King with a heavy conscience. Things go even further south (no pun intended) when King is informed by his superiors that he’s been "stop-lossed," meaning an order came down from the President himself for King to return to battle against his will. Having decidedly seen enough of the hell of war, King (after roughing up some fellow soldiers, steeling a Jeep, and proclaiming “F*** the President” – a statement that no longer carries the ironic weight it may have a few years back), goes on the run and becomes a fugitive in the very nation for which he risked his life.

The rest of the movie consists of King and Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Charlize Theron clone Abbie Cornish) trekking from Texas to Washington, D.C. to call on the aid of a U.S. Senator who was present for King’s homecoming and whom King foolishly believes will sympathize with his cause. The pair encounters a fellow stop-loss-ee (?) who warns King of the hardships of going AWOL, a slain friend’s shattered family, and a group of thugs that push just the right buttons for King to release his post-war rage, but few obstacles that would make their run from the law feel even lawless, let alone suspenseful. What it does give them ample time for is the nourishment of a possible affair that is constantly on the edge of a “will they? or won’t they?” knife, King’s confession of the murder of an Iraqi child in an attempt to disarm his grenade-toting father (just in case seeing friends killed by IED’s and murdering dozens didn’t seem like enough to make one war-weary), and the consumption of enough tequila to knock out Courtney Love. When the ultimate decision (of whether King will obediently serve his country once more or stick to his newfound rebellious guns) finally comes, the power-punch moment is tarnished by the poorly drawn scenarios and character archetypes that paved its way.

Stop-Loss opens with brute strength. Pierce (who previously led Hilary Swank to her first Best Actress Oscar win with 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry) introduces her characters smack in the middle of combat in an intense first sequence that epitomizes the “show, don’t tell” credo of great cinema. Granted, it’s needlessly scrawled upon by hand-drawn graphics meant to commemorate the fallen, obnoxiously scored by a bombastic rap soundtrack, and distractingly intercut with homemade videos designed to look like those created by so many serving today (all of which are used so that this MTV Films production can hit its MTV-generation target). But the message still comes through with clarity. While it lacks the gritty authenticity of, say, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Pierce’s depiction of these men at war clearly illustrates the horrors to which no one should ever want to return. Too bad that segment only lasts through the film’s credits.

Once these boys get home (which is where the majority of the plot unfolds), they become little more than cartoonish rednecks, who’d be better suited as material for Jeff Foxworthy’s "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" than as the subjects of a film with such hot-button issues as its focus. Unless someone forgot to inform me that all residents of Texas are uneducated, profanity-spouting simpletons, Pierce has painted them in an offensively clichéd light, right down to the speech about ribs and beer. While I have no doubt that she (and co-writer Mark Richard) had the best intentions in making this film, their execution is about as off the mark as George W. Bush’s exit strategy.

I had a lot of reservations prior to writing this review. Although I’m certainly not insensitive to the plight of those serving in the Middle East, I have little to no personal and/or emotional connection to it apart from a single friend who’s been there and a relative in the Air Force who doesn’t see much “action.” Initially, I felt as though this left me with a limited perspective, and that the soldiers who may identify with some of the film’s characters deserved to have the final word on its potency. However, the more I thought about it, if the movie is meant to educate the public about that very plight from which I feel disconnected, then I’m certainly a valid candidate to critique its success. And if it failed me, then it no doubt failed the soldiers in effect. Stop-Loss ends with some disturbing statistics of just how many men and women in the U.S. military have been dealt the title’s unfortunate hand, which a character in the movie refers to as a “draft after the fact.” Those few words on the screen had more of an effect on me than any of the blundering elements that preceded them.

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