Strewn story parts pile up in Stop-Loss, a painfully polite Iraq war drama pitched at the MTV generation. It’s not hard to theorize about how the movie came undone: The director and co-writer, Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce, lived and worried through her own brother’s deployment to Iraq. And she incorporated stories he told of soldiers devastated by Stop-Loss — a policy that allows the military to send servicemen and -women back to combat even after they’ve served out their military contract. In some sense, Peirce is a horrified civilian, trying to keep everyone safe.
And so, as if to touch wood and keep away the jinx, Peirce seals off each of her characters, soldiers as well as loved ones at home, in emotional Bubble Wrap. Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, nicely acquitted) is the designated, anguished recipient of Stop-Loss orders. He’s a good son of Texas who, having seen raw battle in Iraq, just wants to come home to American peace — no word what he’ll do for a job in this stricken economy — but instead receives orders to reload and return overseas. He balks, considers bolting either north of the border or south, and drives around America with his best friend’s girl (Abbie Cornish). The best buddy (Channing Tatum), also a soldier, re-ups, but not before a discrete bout of post-traumatic stress, during which he punches his fiancée in the eye.
Peirce’s intention in cataloging even a handful of the war’s staggering home-turf losses is heartfelt. There’s a Texas pal (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who can’t find his emotional way home. And there’s a gravely wounded comrade (Victor Rasuk), who’s chipper as a salt-of-the-earth type out of The Best Years of Our Lives and who stands in for the hundreds now being fitted for prosthetics in Stateside Army hospitals. But Stop-Loss holds so much of its rage in check — and keeps such a nervous eye on the attention span of its audience — that it ultimately strangles itself. All its power is boiled away to a soft, unfocused story about the moral strain of making difficult choices. In contrast, the movie’s early, more improvisational-looking scenes of overseas Army life, and a harrowing, well-staged ambush and skirmish sequence set in Tikrit alleyways (and shot in Morocco) capture the hell that has already claimed the lives of 4,000 U.S. troops with fierce energy. B-