But okay, the young Texans do their duty anyway under these testing conditions. They’re all best buddies from the same town, see, and when a buddy is threatened they naturally have to slaughter a whole Iraqi family, per the army training manual, down to the littlest child. Lingering close-ups of the dead family will come in handy later as fodder for those post-war flashbacks. Then, just when the guys get home and get their medals pinned on and think they’re done servin’ their country, they’re threatened with the presidential stop-loss order sending soldiers who’ve done their tours back to active duty. This is the second-act revelation, that George W. Bush, the pride of Crawford, Texas, might be kind of a dick.
YEE-HAW! THESE BEER-GUZZLIN' YOKELS SURE ARE AWESOME! IN AN AUTHENTIC SORTA WAY, IF'N YUH CATCH KIMBERLY'S DRIFT
Anyway, our hero, Sgt. Brandon King, played by Ryan Phillipe, goes AWOL, not because he’s scared or anything, but on principle. Remember Phillipe, that soft boy actor with the rosebud lips and the hair like a poodle who used to be married to Reese Witherspoon? Here he’s got a buzz-cut and a square jaw and he’s the best-loved sergeant since Burt Lancaster strode around befriending the enlisted men in From Here to Eternity. He’s a walking, talking recruitment poster for what the military can do for an effete young girlyman.
Director Peirce hasn’t really come up with a new crowd-pleasing formula for war movies. She’s just remembered the old one: glamorize war while pretending to deplore it. She could have a prosperous second career shooting TV ads for the army, showing how you can Be All You Can Be through the glories of male bonding under fire, followed by the romantic home-front agonies of post-traumatic stress disorder. Oh, the soulful head-clutching, the faraway gazes, the bad-boy drunken antics followed by hugs, the stoic chin-lifts, the trickle of not-unmanly tears! Plus the big bonus of having concerned token females clustering around murmuring “Ah just don’t know what’s wrong with Tommy/Eddie/Jimmy/Steve!” Then the hot chick of the bunch, Michelle (Abbie Cornish), goes AWOL with Brandon, even though she’s engaged to his best friend Steve. The reasons for this plot twist make no sense, except that, in movies, when a guy hits the road on a doomed journey across America, he must take the hottest available female along with him.
I admit I could be prejudiced against this film because of my hatred of the Texas two-step and all that comes with it. Other reviewers are all for it, though. A.O. Scott of the New York Times, for example, admires its “tang of authenticity.” Just to give you a sense of what he means, here’s a description of one of the authentic sequences. Unarmed and on the run, Brandon confronts two thugs in a dark alley who’ve robbed his car, and demands his stuff back. Naturally, they beat him up, one hitting him in the head with a baseball bat, the other kicking him repeatedly in the stomach while he’s on the ground. But this treatment doesn’t faze Brandon. He’s not just tough, he’s army-tough. Inspired by Iraq flashbacks the way Popeye is inspired by spinach, he leaps up to pummel both guys, plus a third one who’s come in from nowhere and pulled a gun on him. In no time he’s got all three hardened criminals on their knees, quaking in terror and begging for mercy.
That’s what makes Stop-Loss such a notable film, its uncompromising realism. A lowly escapist popcorn movie would’ve set up this scene with some ludicrous back-story, telling us our hero is a Navy SEAL, or an assassin trained in every known martial art, or one of the Fantastic Four. But here, we get to see how an ordinary staff sergeant in real life does hand-to-hand combat. Who knew the army offered this kind of training? It might not do much against the Iraqis, but you can kick some major ass when you get home.