- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

War-on-terror-themed films, on the whole, didn’t do well at the box office last year. Although these movies were made by acting powerhouses including Robert Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”) and writing-directing powerhouses including “Crash’s” Paul Haggis (“In the Valley of Elah”) audiences proved uninterested in having their entertainment mirror their headlines.

Kimberly Peirce, with her first film since her 1999 debut, “Boys Don’t Cry,” might believe her movie will have a different fate. Perhaps she would point out that “Stop-Loss” isn’t merely a war film but something of a fast-paced thriller, too. Maybe she would argue that “Stop-Loss” isn’t an antiwar film but a pro-troop one.

“Elah” could have made those same claims, however, and they didn’t help. What “Stop-Loss” has that the other films didn’t, though, is a first-rate young cast that could draw in the younger crowd. It’s too bad the script they were given, co-written by Miss Peirce with Mark Richard, is so riddled with ridiculousness.

Ryan Phillippe stars as Brandon King, a young soldier who leads his squad to heroism in Tikrit. When he and his two friends return home to Texas from Iraq, though, they don’t feel like heroes. Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve (Channing Tatum) can’t forget what they saw, no matter how hard they try to drink themselves into oblivion. With no better idea in mind, they seem destined to become career soldiers, though, whereas Brandon is happy to have completed his enlistment contract.

Or so he thinks. He soon discovers he has been “stop-lossed” — during times of war, a contract can be extended, forcing soldiers to head out for one or even two more tours of duty.

Angry at what he sees as betrayal, the dutiful soldier goes AWOL. Along with his sense of duty, it seems, goes his belief in the war. “I’m done with killing. And I’m not leading any more men to a slaughter,” he declares. Aided by Steve’s disillusioned fiancee (Abbie Cornish), Brandon drives toward Washington as he considers his dwindling options.

Mr. Phillippe, most recently seen in last year’s “Breach,” proves himself very grown up in this film. The frequent shots of his buff body without a shirt may make the film an easier sell, too. Mr. Gordon-Levitt, who made his name on TV’s “Third Rock From the Sun” and is a feature film star in indies such as “Brick,” is given less to work with. Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (“Rome”), playing Brandon’s dad, also is shockingly underused.

A bigger problem is the sloppy research. The erosion of the film’s credibility starts in the first few minutes, when soldiers address each other by first rather than last names and continues until the end, when a soldier gets a military funeral after he has been given a bad-conduct discharge.

Miss Peirce might believe her film honors troops — and it certainly does highlight an important issue often ignored — but she doesn’t seem to know the first thing about how the military operates.

Then there’s the melodrama. Aside perhaps from the star, every soldier returns from Iraq with the kind of problems that should see him hospitalized. By the time one tells another, “I don’t even know you anymore,” all hope of a film that treats the aftermath of war without cliche is gone.

**

TITLE: “Stop-Loss”

RATING: R (Graphic violence and pervasive language)

CREDITS: Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Written by Mark Richard and Miss Peirce

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.stoplossmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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