[Screen It]

(2008) (Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish) (R)

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Drama: When he learns he's being sent back to Iraq yet another time after his contract is up, an Army sergeant goes AWOL in his quest to find anyone who can reverse the decision.
Brandon King (RYAN PHILLIPPE), Steve Shriver (CHANNING TATUM) and Tommy Burgess (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) are longtime friends who are happy to have safely returned to their small Texas town after a tour of duty in Tikrit, Iraq. Brandon feels responsible, however, for some in their squad who were killed or badly wounded in an ambush he now thinks he should have avoided.

Even so, his parents -- Roy (CIARAN HINDS) and Ida (LINDA EMOND) -- are pleased he's home, which also holds true for Steve's fiancée, Michelle (ABBIE CORNISH), while their superior officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (TIMOTHY OLYPHANT), orders all of them to be on their best behavior. Unfortunately, the emotional and psychological stress of what they encountered in country has followed them home. That's only exacerbated by their drinking, which is particularly true for Tommy whose new bride kicks him out of their home for that.

Yet, the biggest shock comes for Brandon who learns that he's been stop-lossed. That is, despite having fulfilled his contract with the military, the sergeant has been ordered back to active duty in Iraq. For a variety of reasons he doesn't want to go, but when Miller commands that he follow those orders, Brandon goes on the run.

With Michelle offering to drive, the two set out for Washington, D.C. where Brandon hopes to meet with a politician he believes can help rescind that order. From that point on, and as he deals with the repercussions of his act, Brandon tries to prove that the military's decision is wrong, if not illegal.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
As most everyone knows, a 9 to 5 job can be filled with any number of irritants, ranging from petty things to fairly significant issues. Yet, one of the more annoying and maddening ones is when an employee is about ready to go home for the day or, worse yet, head off for vacation, when the boss comes in and has "that look" on their face. They then inform their subordinate that the latter is going to have to work late or cancel their time off, occasionally without any compensation and sometimes with no apparent rhyme or reason.

While that might make one's blood boil, such extended work hours and related change of plans usually aren't potentially dangerous to one's health. Yet, imagine if you literally work in a war zone and just when you think your signed contract is up, your supervisor informs you that you don't get to go home, or if you're already there, you have to return.

Such is the case with an unexpected turn of events that's little known outside the military. While the term "stop-loss" was originally intended as a financial command for a stock to be sold when it drops below a certain price, the U.S. government hijacked it, post draft cessation, to keep its numbers of enlisted personnel from falling below certain levels.

Accordingly, service men and women end up having their tours doubled, tripled or more beyond the contract they originally signed with their John or Jane Hancock. Most of those affected return to duty -- albeit with differing levels of enthusiasm -- but some say enough is enough and try to fight the system.

That's the underlying plot thrust of the appropriately titled "Stop-Loss," a dramatic look at that very occurrence in our current war in Iraq. Marking director Kimberly Pierce's long-awaited return to filmmaking following her critically acclaimed film, "Boys Don't Cry," the pic is likely to tick off certain groups of people, just as that as transgender movie did a number of years ago.

Yet, the effort is something of a labor of love (or at least concern) for Pierce as what was once going to be a documentary about the contemporary soldier turned into a regular movie once her brother enrolled in the military post 9/11 and the subject of stop-loss then came around.

The filmmaker is obviously stepping into near-certain controversy (there will be those who call her and her film unpatriotic), but also treads through uncertain viewer willingness toward yet another film about the Iraq war. The fact that films about the effects of war both in and after the conflict are numerous enough that there's little to no novelty factor to them nowadays clearly mean the filmmaker and her pic face something of an uphill battle to show us something we haven't seen before.

As written by Pierce and Mark Richard, the film is most effective during its "in country" moments when Sgt. Brandon King (a good Ryan Phillippe) leads his checkpoint squad (played by Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt among others) on a chase after insurgents that then turns into an ambush.

Most of them get out alive, but some are killed and others badly wounded, and that and the sum of their experiences there certainly puts a whammy on their individual and collective psyche. That quickly comes to a head back home where Tatum's character suffers flashbacks to the point that he digs a foxhole in his front yard, much to the horror of his fiancée (Abbie Cornish). Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt picks up the pace and intensity of his drinking to the point his new bride kicks him out, and Phillippe questions his leadership by allowing his men to come under attack.

That's when he gets his stop-loss notice, flies off the handle (including that directed at his C.O. played by Timothy Olyphant), and then goes AWOL with the above fiancée, albeit thankfully without any romantic developments (they've been friends since they were kids).

What then follows isn't exactly "The Fugitive" as the cat and mouse part is missing any sort of a personified feline, but is something more akin to a dramatic road trip flick where the two on the run try to find a solution to the soldier's increasingly problematic dilemma.

Pierce capably handles all of the material and her characters, and the performances are all good, but the film never really grabbed me (that is, at least beyond the particularly intense ambush sequence at the beginning). I intellectually grasped the outrage of the situation and the perils facing the protagonist. I also got the deeper thematic element regarding what it means to be a soldier, where protecting the guy or gal to the left or right of you is all that's important.

Yet, emotionally there was a disconnect for me, and that's a big deal, especially in a picture such as this. Viewer response will obviously vary, and it's possible I might have had a different reaction with a different viewing. As it stands for yours truly, however, it's all competently done (despite wading into some melodrama in the second half), but the lack of personal resonance left me rather blasé about it when I know I should have felt differently. "Stop-Loss" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 19, 2008 / Posted March 28, 2008

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