‘Stop-Loss’ loses sense of purpose in MTV glamour

Stop-Loss begins with one hell of an action sequence. Sharp cuts, loud blasts, back-alley chases – the whole nine yards. The time is now and the place is Iraq. We don’t know who the American soldiers are shooting at, just that they are Middle-Eastern and bad. When the action subsides, some American troops have been wounded, others killed.

Cut to small-town Texas. A parade welcomes staff sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) and his men back home after Brandon’s final tour of duty in Iraq. He is brave, proud and celebrated. He has served his country and now just wants to return to a normal life. But assimilating isn’t that easy. Brandon is plagued with horrific flashbacks of the war and his lifelong buddies and fellow combatants share similar post-traumatic stresses.

Steve (Channing Tatum) backhands his fiancé Michelle (Abbie Cornish) and, thinking he’s in combat, buries himself on the front lawn. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hits the bottle hard and winds up in the slammer. The war has taken its toll on their psyches, but at least they’re home, right?

Not so fast – Brandon has been stop-lossed. This fine-print clause allows the military to extend a service member’s active duty beyond his initial end of term of service date. In other words, Brandon must head back to Iraq. This patriotic Purple Heart recipient now has two choices: report for duty or flee.

Starting at this point, the film itself should have been stop-lossed back to the drawing board. Brandon decides to drive from Texas to D.C. (because the telephone doesn’t work?) to seek out a senator who promised him a favor. He brings his best friend’s fiancée along for the ride and the film becomes a long drive to nowhere (in fact, Brandon never does reach the senator).

Despite the road trip segment’s lack of narrative structure, there are some powerful scenes and insights into military life. One example comes when Brandon and Michelle visit Rico, a wounded soldier in an army hospital. Although difficult to watch, the scene portrays, with an eerie compassion, how these young men deal with life after being physically mangled, as Michelle plays pool with a soldier who has lost both legs and an arm. In a captivating shot, Rico, whose family is Mexican, explains that dying in battle wouldn’t be so bad because at least his family would get green cards.

Most intriguing is our exposure to “lay low” soldiers – men and women who once volunteered to fight for their country but have subsequently chosen to go AWOL after being stop-lossed. These “fugitives,” and there are many of them, live life day by day, always on the move. Others flee the country, often to Canada or Mexico, never again able to return to their homeland.

As the title affirms, this movie is not so much about the Iraq war but about the stop-loss policy itself. Filmmaker Kimberly Peirce succeeds in illustrating the terrors of this wholly unjust policy and the irony of forcing decorated soldiers to run and hide in their own country. In general, it is the strength of the exploration of the stop-loss policy (and its emotional baggage) that keeps the film afloat, despite the various forces that tempt to pull it below the surface.

One of the forces working against the film is the cheesy dialogue (I’d be remiss to leave out that this is an MTV Films production). Example from the trailer: “Your country needs you to go back. You know it’s the right thing to do.” Brandon’s response: “Sir, I’ve always done the right thing. And this is wrong!” Enough said. Although Phillippe is solid in the leading role, Tatum’s performance is just awful. He simply cannot act. Let’s not let his good looks go to waste, though – can somebody find this guy a talented photographer?

This film pulsates with energy and is often visually arresting. I feel uncomfortable calling this upsetting story entertaining, but the highly stylized camerawork (which includes fake documentary footage) and hip-hop laden soundtrack (thanks, MTV) make me feel better about doing so. So, I guess it’s the type of pic that’s pretty good when you watch it but leaves much to be desired when you think about it. The last scene, Brandon’s final decision, will leave you confused (if you care to try to figure out what Peirce is saying) and, without the assistance of melodramatic music, unsatisfied. Herein lies the problem for me. If you’re going to make a film about an important social and political issue (especially while it’s still going on), you should probably figure out what it is you’re trying to say.