“You got a right to be stupid.”
A more apt line to describe its characters and its intended audience could not be written. Stop-Loss,* an updated version of a Vietnam film, concerns the miscast Ryan Phillipe as a dedicated soldier in Iraq whose tour is coming to an end as the movie begins. When he returns, after a brutal battle shown with a clumsy mix of digital video and film, he is “stop-lossed,” or told he has to return to Iraq for another round of peril.
Upset by this, Brandon King (Phillipe) takes off. And thus begins a tale of turning from hero to fugitive. Deemed a pariah by his abandoned friends (which include a superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who really should have been the lead), King gives up everything to escape this perceived injustice.
At face value, there is nothing wrong with this story. The problem is that the concessions made to make the film by writer/director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) in order to appease co-producer MTV films destroy the poignancy of the opening scenes. Peirce wants to send a message, but only comes off as heavyhanded and condescending. It’s a shame, because the dialogue is often sharp and witty — an early moment has the soldiers examining the trunk of an Iraqi car and asking the driver “You got any Mexicans in there?” But just as often, there’ll be a clunker intended to reflect the jingoism that is battling for airtime, and the simplistic caricatures overtake any authenticity with lines like “Onions smell like home to me,” or “We killed ‘em over there so we don’t have to kill ‘em in Texas.”
Sure, part of this is refreshing as some of the characters are actively stupid and yet they don’t seem dumbed down (which conflicts with a lot of the on-the-nose clever dialogue). But at some point, they stop resembling everyday people and seem more like points Peirce is trying to make. Some of the more obvious symbolism (the final shot is a none-too-subtle suggestion of servicemen being sent off like cattle to be slaughtered, though it could just as easily be read as a train to Auschwitz) is even overtaken by lazy stereotypes. According to the Texans in this movie, New York City is an unfriendly, Jewy place, where slickster lawyers don’t know the difference between southern states, and where Canada is a place worse than hell.
*Beefcake note: The barechested shots of the various lead characters that blanket the TV ad are largely absent from the film.