Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss: A total loss

Stop-Loss (2008) • View trailer for Stop-Loss
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.28.08
Buy DVD: Stop-Loss 

When settling back to enjoy a film, few things are more aggravating than bad drama that trivializes a legitimate real-world crisis.

Stop-Loss is just such a film.
With everybody including the police, military and even good friends hunting
them down -- not to mention the need to think straight at every turn -- Michele
(Abbie Cornish) and Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) nonetheless find time to stop
at a bar and down quartets of tequila shots, as the third act of this silly drama
grinds toward its preposterous conclusion.

Regardless of one's views on the Iraq war, the accelerating practice of "surprising" soldiers — by retaining them after the completion of their required (and anticipated) term of service, via a sort of "back-door draft" that places them back in harm's way — is unpleasantly sneaky at best, and emotionally shattering at worst. It's the sort of fine-print, loophole behavior that one would expect of a duplicitous used car salesman, rather than U.S. government representatives who should be grateful for services rendered.

I've no doubt a compelling fictionalized story could be told about this practice.

I'm still waiting.

Stop-Loss desperately wants to be that film, but director Kimberly Peirce's script — co-authored with Mark Richard — is insulting, infantile claptrap apparently designed solely for anti-war agitators. I can't really fault the young actors, most of whom do their best with what was presented, but the narrative moves from dumb to dumber until it becomes impossible to accept any part of the story being told.

I hate to say this, but it's precisely the sort of vacuous nonsense I'd expect from an MTV Films production: all hot air, overwrought melodrama and irritating cinematographic technique at the expense of honest emotion or credible writing.

I expected much, much better of Peirce, whose previous film — Boys Don't Cry — was highlighted by gripping acting and a quietly compassionate script that easily could have slid into bathos, but didn't. Peirce demonstrated sensitivity, intelligence and restraint in almost every facet of Boys Don't Cry, qualities wholly absent in this new film.

Star Ryan Phillippe looks right at home, as well he should, having covered similar ground in Clint Eastwood's vastly superior Flags of Our Fathers. Phillippe stars here as Sgt. Brandon King, introduced on duty at a checkpoint in Iraq; he and his squad buddies try to make the best of a bad situation that gets worse quickly, when insurgents fire upon them from a passing car.

Following protocol — so we're told — Brandon leads his men in immediate pursuit, at which point the American good guys find themselves trapped in a narrow alley, taking heavy fire from rifle- and missile-armed adversaries in doorways and on rooftops. When the dust has settled, several of Brandon's buddies are dead ... along with more than a few innocent women and children.

At the risk of sounding unduly cynical, that's a lot of bleeding-heart territory for any movie not even 10 minutes old, let alone one as deliberately manipulative as this one.

But Brandon manages a valorous save, which prompts a hero's welcome when the scene shifts to a cheering homecoming in small-town Brazos, Texas. He and best friend/colleague Sgt. Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) eagerly await their opportunity to resume civilian life, and it begins with speeches to adoring crowds; it concludes with plenty of drinking at the local watering hole. Too much drinking, to be sure, but who could blame these guys?

Early signs of Peirce's inability to control the tone of her film erupt when viewers giggle over Steve's alcohol- induced front-line flashbacks, and his subsequent decision to dig himself a protective foxhole ... in fiancée Michele's (Abbie Cornish) front yard. Under no circumstances should this scene be considered comical — horrifying or tragic, sure, but certainly not funny — and yet it's almost impossible not to laugh, the way things are staged.

That's where I lost interest in anything Peirce might do or say for the rest of the movie.

All these examples of war-induced psychological damage notwithstanding, the story proper doesn't kick into gear until Brandon proceeds through the various steps involved with departing military life, only to be brought up short at virtually the final stage. Contrary to expectations, his original enlistment has been "extended" indefinitely.

Rather than process this undeniably disturbing news with the cool-headed equanimity that he has demonstrated until this moment, Brandon goes berserk: He bad-mouths a superior officer, puts a smack-down on the two soldiers ordered to take him to the brig, steals a Jeep and goes AWOL.

His brilliant plan? To drive to Washington, D.C., and contact the senator who briefly visited Brazos during the earlier coming-home ceremony.

It's simply impossible to accept behavior this stupid, and — rest assured — it gets worse.

Brandon is accompanied on this fool's quest by Michele, who has been like a sister for many, many years. Besides, she's deeply troubled by Steve's behavior, and needs time of her own to think things over.

Meanwhile, back at home, good friend and fellow squad member Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is failing to process his own demons; his solution involves ever- increasing quantities of alcohol. This character's eventual fate is all but text-messaged.

The grade-school melodramatic hijinks notwithstanding, this film's other major problem involves its litter of deeply flawed characters. We have no genuinely noble or emotionally stable protagonists; every one of these guys is screwed up to some degree, and they all behave badly. Very badly. Taking this film at face value means believing that every single soldier returning from Iraq would arrive home as a permanently damaged basket case.

Obviously, that's Hollywood nonsense.

Perhaps reflecting its MTV origins, Peirce begins her film with a blend of on-the-scene "clean" footage (read: good film stock) and the sort of grainy, chaotic mix-videos that these individual characters would make for themselves, or to share with their families. The result is a bit jarring, but it feels reasonably authentic; strange, then, that Peirce diminishes and eventually abandons this technique altogether.

Consistency — whether in dramatic credibility, character behavior or even directorial tone — simply isn't valued in this movie.

Cornish, consistently sullen and stone-faced, is impossible to read and makes a terrible female lead. She did much better work in 2006's Candy, although that little Aussie film didn't dent the American market. Tatum tries too hard as the story's token "true believer," and is awfully quick to condemn the guy (Brandon) who's supposed to have been his best friend since childhood.

Gordon-Levitt probably could have done much better with his role, but Tommy doesn't get enough camera time for us to get a bead on him.

By far the best work comes from Victor Rasuk, in his small part as Rico Rodriguez; he's the only character who looks, sounds and feels authentic.

Phillippe has a lot of heavy lifting during the course of this increasingly ridiculous story: I give him credit for playing the material straight, and as persuasively as he can. But ultimately his effort is wasted; Brandon's behavior ceases to have any semblance of reality.

And the story's rushed outcome is simply ludicrous.

War films — particularly politically relevant war films — need to be left in the hands of writers, directors and actors who possess the intelligence and maturity to do them justice. Good intentions aren't enough: Even though Peirce was, no doubt to a great degree, influenced by her younger brother's enlistment in the Army, this material is simply beyond her.

And the result will be remembered as nothing more than one of the many Iraq-themed movies that has failed during the past year.

No comments:

Post a Comment