Thursday, October 2, 2008


"Boys Don't Cry" director Kimberley Peirce's new anti-war movie "Stop-Loss" (**1/2 out of ****) draws its title from an unfair Pentagon policy that obliges troops to perform back-to-back tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The chief problem with this ambitious, sincere, but unbelievable protest film is it cannot decide which is more important, exposing an unfair military practice or depicting the trauma of combat veterans reentering civilian life. Meanwhile, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, "Stop-Loss" doesn't lob any grenades at our anti-terrorist objectives in the Middle East. Indeed, its spineless ending goes out of the way to support the larger political consensus for the necessity the war. The strongest that "Stop-Loss" gets is when the protagonist uses the F-word in his comments about the President as Commander-in-Chief using a loophole to force him to go back to Iraq. Inevitably, "Stop-Loss" refuses to glamorize the war and cherry picks obvious clich├ęs that filmmakers resorted to in early epics like such as "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Born on the Fourth of July" to make war appear unsavory business.

"Stop-Loss" opens with overexposed home video excerpts lensed by U.S. troops in a manner that recalls an earlier Iraq war movie "Gunnar Palace." The scene shifts then to a roadblock in Tikrit, Iraq, manned by Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe of "Flags of Our Fathers"), Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum of "Step Up"). Pvt. Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of "The Lookout") and Pvt. Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk of "Haven") and shows them checking vehicles with suspicious passengers. Out of nowhere careens a carload of terrorists shooting up the countryside with an assault rifle. King and company go in hot pursuit and find themselves trapped in an ambush with rooftop bushwhackers firing rifle-propelled grenades. This harrowing firefight at close quarters between U.S. soldiers and terrorists in an urban setting recalls "Black Hawk Down." Although several soldiers die in this ambush, Pvt. Rodriguez survives at the loss of his vision as well as an arm and a leg.

King's tour of duty is up, and he celebrates going home with his long-time friend Shriver. In their hometown of Brazos, Texas, King receives a Bronze Star for valor along with a Purple Heart from Senator Orton Worrell (Josef Sommer of "Silkwood") and promises his help in any future endeavors. King is just about to turn in his gear when he learns to his chagrin that the military has decided to extend his term of contract. Meanwhile, Burgess's wife kicks him out of their house and Shriver has his own troubles with his girlfriend, Michelle (Australian actress Abbie Cornish of "A Good Year"), who wants him out of the Army and into her arms as a husband.

King refuses to return to Iraq. When his helpful commander, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant of "Hitman") tries to confine him to the stockade until their departure date, King beats up his escort and escapes. King decides to call on Senator to make his case. Angry at Shriver, Michelle drives King to Washington, D.C. for his meeting with the Senator. Along the way, they learn about how the courts have intervened on the behalf of the military in all 'stop-loss' lawsuits. Briefly, King visits Rico, now minus half an arm and half a leg in a rehabilitation clinic. Shriver finds Michelle and King on the road and tries to convince him to turn himself in while he still has the chance.

Clearly, director Kimberley Peirce and scenarist Mark Richmond of "Huff" wore their hearts on their sleeves like stripes when they wrote this sympathy for the soldier saga. They have created several interesting soldiers and relatives and win our sympathy and provoke our outrage. King explains at one point that 'stop-loss' was designed to forgo the draft. Eventually, he decides that desertion seems the only alternative. Sadly, rather than forging ahead into turbulent waters with its anti-protest theme, "Stop-Loss" blows its own retreat to preserve the status quo and its amounts to a message-laden but far-fetched furlough from reality.

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