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Overall Rating
2.97

Awesome: 3.03%
Worth A Look: 36.36%
Average: 18.18%
Pretty Bad39.39%
Total Crap: 3.03%

4 reviews, 9 user ratings



Stop-Loss
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Boys Don't Re-Up Against Their Will"
3 stars

The new Iraq war-themed drama “Stop-Loss” isn’t so much a bad film as it is an annoyingly uneven one. On the one hand, it is filled with good intentions and contains some fine performances and moments of real dramatic power. At the same time, however, it is chock-full of cliches, contrivances and ham-fisted plot developments and concludes in such a cop-out manner that it will frustrate almost anyone who has stuck with it up to that point. The result is a noble but somewhat lame stab at topical cinema that is all the more disappointing because it marks the long-awaited return of filmmaker Kimberley Peirce, who, outside of helming an episode of “The L Word,” hasn’t directed anything since her extraordinary 1999 debut “Boys Don’t Cry.” Like many moviegoers, I was deeply affected by that film and have been waiting patiently ever since for her to come up with a follow-up, never dreaming that she would only emerge nearly nine years later with a film so predictable and anonymous that it could have been made by any middle-of-the-road moviemaker.

Ryan Phillippe stars as Staff Sgt. Brandon King, a young man who enlisted in the Army because he felt that it was the right thing to do and has fought courageously for his country in Iraq–during a harrowing opening sequence in Tikrit, he and his men are ambushed and while they manage to overcome their attackers, some of them (not to mention more than a few innocent bystanders) do not survive the bloody firefight. Soon afterwards, Brandon’s tour of duty ends and he returns home to his small Texas hometown, along with fellow soldiers Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) and Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the cheers of his neighbors, platitudes from a visiting senator (Josef Sommer) and the awarding of a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his efforts. Brandon is happy and proud of all of this but while Steve and Tommy are contemplating returning to duty, all he is really looking forward to is leaving the service and getting back to the quiet normalcy of civilian life.

That dream comes to an abrupt end when, just before his official discharge, Brandon is informed that he has fallen victim to “stop-loss”–a controversial bit of military policy buried in the fine print of the contract that states that soldiers can have their enlistments extended indefinitely and be repeatedly sent back into combat. (Critics of the policy have charged that this loophole is being exploited to serve as a sort of back-door draft.) Although a model soldier and as patriotic as one could possibly be, Brandon thinks this stinks and when his appeals fall on deaf ears, he impulsively goes AWOL and, accompanied by Michelle (Abbie Cornish), who is Steve’s fiancee and none too thrilled to hear about his own plans to re-up, he sets for Washington to plead his case before the senator. On his journey, he meets with the family of one of his fallen comrades, visits a V.A. hospital to meet up with the severely wounded Rico (Victor Rasuk) and contemplates fleeing to Canada and leaving behind his family and friends forever in order to avoid being sent back to Iraq.

The opening reel of “Stop-Loss,” in which a series of faux-videos supposedly shot and edited by soldiers on the front lines seamlessly segues into that hellish firefight, is an intriguing and impressively-staged sequence that raises hopes that Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard are going to be giving us a fresh take on the plight of the contemporary soldier and their families, who are being forced to pay the price for a colossally mismanaged war. Alas, once the action gets back to the States, it soon becomes little more than a compilations of scenes and images cribbed from other movies–“The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home” and “Born on the Fourth of July” immediately come to mind–and while some of these moments are reasonably affecting on a basic dramatic level, too many of them will only serve to remind many viewers of other, more powerful war films. I guess that since the film is theoretically aimed at a younger audience that wasn’t even born when those films were released, maybe these elements might have seemed fresher to them. Unfortunately, too many of them are handled in such a heavy-handed manner that they wind up losing much of their effectiveness–the sad fate of one character is telegraphed so early in the proceedings that when his shocking denouement finally occurs, what we feel is less a sense of remorse and more a sense of relief that this particularly unrewarding plot thread has finally come to an end. However, the most enraging element is probably the conclusion–I won’t go into details but while I can see how this ending might have worked on paper as a way of wrapping up a story that doesn’t really lend itself to a neat conclusion, it plays on the screen as a sort of cop-out that covers all the dramatic bases in a way that will prevent audiences from getting upset enough to give the film poor word-of-mouth.

What is really frustrating is that there are occasional moments of real freshness and honesty–the sequence in the V.A. hospital is especially effective–that are forced to share time with other moments that are too contrived to be believed. As she did in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Peirce, along with cinematographer Chris Menges does a very good job of creating a genuine sense of place in the early scenes that bring an extra level of reality to the proceedings before it is overwhelmed by the overly familiar dramatics. There are also a number of good performances from the likes of Phillippe (who has never before been as compelling and convincing as he is here) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who does a lot with a part that follows an all-too-predictable dramatic arc) and a very good one from Abbie Cornish, who is so convincing as a small-town Texas gal that it may not dawn on some viewers that she is the same Australian actress who made memorable appearances in such diverse films as “Candy” (where she played a junkie opposite Heath Ledger), “A Good Year” (in which she was a good-time California girl crashing at Russell Crowe’s vineyard) and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (where she was a junior member of the court who became part of a romantic triangle involving Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh). On the other hands, some good actors are barely given time to shine before disappearing (such as Ciaran Hinds, who pops up early on as Brandon’s father and then essentially vanishes) while not-so-good actors struggle valiantly to create plausible characters (although he deserves credit for trying to break out of the teen-dream ghetto, Channing Tatum simply isn’t convincing as Brandon’s gung-ho friend and fellow soldier).

Although “Stop-Loss” is by no means the worst of the recent string of feature films dealing with the current crisis in Iraq and its impact at home (that booby prize still goes to the abysmal “Home of the Brave,” a disaster that plays out like what “The Best Years of our Lives” might have been like in the hands of Ed Wood), it is arguably the most disappointing for the way in which it squanders a fine filmmaker, a game cast and noble aspirations on a final product that plays like just another military-oriented soap opera. A few weeks ago, Kimberley Peirce came to town to promote the film and when I spoke to her, she recounted her reasons for making the film (which was initially inspired by her own brother, who enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan) with the kind of energy and passion that suggested that the entire project was truly a labor of love and not simply a paycheck job. If only she had been able to fully convey that energy and passion into a film that was worthy of it, “Stop-Loss” might have been a truly memorable work of agitprop art instead of the fitfully intriguing but largely meandering melodrama that it turned out to be.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17042&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/28/08 15:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/25/09 Monday Morning Not bad at all - lots of real life drama 4 stars
8/11/08 KingNeutron Absolutely gripping movie - lots of sympathy for the soldiers plight. 4 stars
8/11/08 Man out 6 bucks I enjoy dramas about "dumb, stupid animals" acting as the temporal power of Nazi Pope 4 stars
7/26/08 mike pretty boring for me 2 stars
7/06/08 PAUL SHORTT ROAD PICTURE INERTIA WITH FLASHES OF OVERWROUGHT MELODRAMA 1 stars
4/25/08 Rebecca Marchand Very moving considering this really is happening yet predictable. 4 stars
4/07/08 David Henry Caught between love of country and knowlege of tragedy of war. 5 stars
4/07/08 Stephanie Bruce This Movie really hit home as hubby just got back from Iraq 4 stars
3/29/08 Renee Griffin It was pretty good, I will see again 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  28-Mar-2008 (R)
  DVD: 08-Jul-2008

UK
  25-Apr-2008

Australia
  14-Aug-2008




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