Thursday, April 24, 2008


Advocacy films are tough to critique. They can be terribly written, directed and acted, but if they raise awareness for a little known tidbit of tyranny or injustice does that boost their merit? That's the question the recently released Stop-Loss has raised for me.

Its moral and social implications aside, Stop-Loss did not work for me as a piece of art or entertainment. I get the feeling the writers and producers became aware of Stop-Lossing (the act of extending soldiers' active duty without their consent), and decided to get a film out as quickly as possible. The acting is hit-and-miss, and Channing Tatum (of the "Step Up" series of dance films) is just not up to the challenge of this material at this point in his career. He gets a few teary moments right, but his performance seems rushed and forced. It may not all be his fault because the writing just seems to chug along with uninspired lines, resting on cliche and unearned twists to forward the narrative.

The film begins in Iraq with a tense scene at a military checkpoint. The passenger of a fast-approaching vehicle opens fire, and the vehicle speeds off, at which point Sgt. Brandon King (played by Ryan Phillippe) issues the order to give chase. They end up trapped in a narrow alley, and in this, the film's most effective scene, you get a sense for the madness of this kind of war. King comments on this later-that he expected war would be fought in the open against clearly defined bad guys, but it isn't. The war is fought in people's homes, and the enemy could be anyone.

Two soldiers are killed in the battle, and Brandon blames himself for their deaths feeling that he led the men into a trap. He also carries guilt for another split-second decision he made in the heat of battle-the consequences of which are shown later in a flashback scene.

Upon returning home, he decides to retire from active duty and move on with his life. The clerk tells him that he has been stop-lossed, and must report back to Iraq soon. Haunted by guilt and post-traumatic stress, Brandon cannot bear the weight of leadership in the circumstances mentioned above, so he goes AWOL. The movie follows him as he seeks a way out of redeployment.

The problem with this kind of journey is that it is not necessarily good movie material, so writer/director Peirce feels compelled to add twists and turns in order to make it more entertaining. Every bad thing can and does happen- a barroom brawl that comes out of nowehere, a theft that King just happens to notice at the right moment in order to chase down the perpetrators, and the coincidental appearance of a sweater at the bottom of a pool prompting King to think one of his men is drowning. All these events could work, but they are not adequately prepared for. Again it feels like you are watching a first or second draft.

Upon a closer look at the social issue itself, it gets a bit muddy. Soldiers sign an eight year contract. The contract stipulates that the government can, at any time, require their service in a time of war. Stop-Loss, then, is not a backdoor draft, but just the act of holding the soldier to his word. Now, of course, the issue gets muddy in the current situation because of the dubious nature of the Iraq War. It does then bring up a pertinent question: if we are a nation at war, then why aren't there more of us fighting it? The film also has one other thing going for it: MTV films picked up distribution, which means a younger target market. So the film may be effective in making young men and women stop and ask the question, "Should I become a soldier in light of all this?"

Peter Travers said this film was a powderkeg and that the scene at the film's heart, a graveyard fight between Phillippe's character and Channing Tatum's, is effective. While I agree that this film raises some interesting questions, this scene in particular was not convincing in the least and encapsulated my problem with the film as a whole: if you're going to cover a topic you feel strongly about, why not do it justice?

** out of *****
Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.