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The Independent Critic

Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish
Kimberly Peirce
Kimberly Peirce, Mark Richard
Rated R
113 Mins.
 "Stop Loss" Review 
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Think about it.

Doesn't this very thing send a chill down your spine?

"MTV Films Presents "Stop Loss."

While the "MTV Films" slate is not devoid of any quality pictures, think "Murderball" and "Hustle & Flow," the production company is far more known as the company brought us the delightful "Jackass" films, "Blades of Glory" and the stylized drama "Freedom Writers."

Having been forced in my capacity as a film critic to suffer through a number of off-the-mark Iraq War political statements designed as films already, the notion of heading back into the theatre to watch "MTV Films presents "Stop Loss" was uncomfortable at best.

I secretly held out at least a modicum of hope. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Mysterious Skin"), one of my favorite of the up-and-coming actors, is here and the early buzz was quite favorable. Likewise, "Stop Loss" was written and directed by Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), who'd proven herself able to handle intense and uncomfortable material previously.

Unfortunately, about 30 minutes into the film Peirce loses control of "Stop Loss" and what starts out as a remarkably intense and emotional film disintegrates into yet another mishmash of personal political statements, thinly drawn characters and irrelevant relationships that aren't developed even remotely well enough for anyone to actually care.

Opening with a group of soldiers manning a roadblock in Tikrit, the opening scenes of "Stop Loss" are beautifully shot by Peirce in a way that both evokes the absolute unease in which these soldiers constantly live and, simultaneously, we manage to care about these soldiers even without really knowing them.

However, after these opening scenes, we fast forward several weeks to a hero's welcome in Texas as those who survived that ill-fated Tikrit roadblock return home including childhood friends Steve (Channing Tatum), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brandon (Ryan Phillippe).

Brandon returns home, masking the pain of having lost several of his men during the Tikrit ambush, to his loving parents (Linda Edmonds and Ciaran Hinds). Steve, on the other hand, returns to his loving fiance' Michelle (Australian actress Abbie Cornish) and Tommy comes back even more explosive than he started to a bride (Mammie Gummer, "Evening") who struggles to understand.

While Steve, against the wishes of Michele, decides to return to Iraq, Brandon falls victim to a lightly advertised military provision called "stop loss," which allows the military to call a soldier back into service even if their tour of duty and/or actual enlistment has ended.

Brandon, however, has no desire to go back and he and Michele essentially turn "Stop Loss" into an admittedly more moving than usual road movie as he goes AWOL through "underground" channels in an effort to figure out how to avoid going back to Iraq.

Clearly, "Stop Loss" is a personal project for Peirce.

"Stop Loss" remains a film to at least lightly recommend almost solely on the basis of performances that transcend the thinly drawn characters.

Phillippe, an actor for whom I've seldom cared, has lately been finding vehicles that seem to perfectly fit his acting style and range. As a young man unable to forgive himself or forget one momentary bad decision, Phillippe heartbreakingly portrays the complex Brandon, a blend of honor and conflict.

Even stronger in their performances are Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum.

As Tommy, Levitt plays, in many ways, the other end of the soldier caricature from that of Phillipe's Steve. Gordon-Levitt's Tommy is a rageaholic who has war as his least until he no longer has war as his outlet. As he proved in the stellar "Mysterious Skin," Gordon-Levitt has the ability to vacillate between extreme rage and subtle vulnerability at a moment's notice. Despite having the most underdeveloped of all the characters, Gordon-Levitt infuses Tommy with a depth and emotional core seldom seen in these types of characters.

Channing Tatum ("Step Up") reminds us all that he's far more than a hunky dancer with his take on Steve, a young man whose sense of honor and duty comes, at times, at the expense of friends, family and himself.

As the fiancee' to Steve and the confidante of Brandon, Aussie Abbie Cornish ("Somersault") takes yet another far too thinly drawn character and brings her vividly to life. Cornish's Michelle is a young woman clearly living in a situation in which any concept of control is ludicrous and in which even making the right choice seemingly has negative consequences. While Cornish didn't quite master the Texan accent, her Michelle certainly masters the sense of trying to survive in a world that no longer makes sense.

It's difficult to imagine the box-office prospects for a film such as "Stop Loss," a stylized yet rather relentlessly downbeat look at life surrounding the Iraq War. Far better films, such as John Cusack's "Grace is Gone," have made barely a blip at the box-office, while such noted celeb heavyweights such as "Lion for Lambs" have been disappointments at best.

Kimberly Peirce's "Stop Loss" is somewhere in the middle. While it's undeniably preachy and one-sided, Peirce also smartly focuses much of her attention on the more human aspects of life for soldiers in Iraq, those still fighting and those trying to stop the fighting.

Beautifully photographed by Chris Menges with a strong accompanying score by John Powell, "Stop Loss" lacks the raw power and authenticity of Peirce's 1999 feature debut, "Boys Don't Cry" but remains a film to watch on the strength of its trio of lead performances along with the multi-layered turn by Abbie Cornish.

For those of us who remain at a loss to cope with the thought of over 4,000 soldiers now killed in Iraq and thousands more innocent Iraqis, "Stop Loss" is a reminder of the tremendous and heartbreaking humanity behind the war in Iraq.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic