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‘Stop’ passes muster

Times Movie Critic

Four thousand Americans and counting have died in Iraq, and the litany of unsuccessful films about that part of the world -- “The Situation,” “Redacted,” “Rendition,” “The Kingdom,” “In The Valley of Elah” among others -- is growing as well. Do not add “Stop-Loss” to that list. “Stop-Loss” is a film that does it right.

The story of a young American soldier played by Ryan Phillippe who resists an order to return to Iraq, “Stop-Loss” covers some of the same territory as those other features. The difference here is a quality of propulsive emotional intensity that pushes us over rough spots as it drives us insistently forward. An intensity that must be credited to director and co-writer ■ Kimberly Peirce.

Peirce hasn’t directed since 1999’s devastating Hilary Swank-starring “Boys Don’t Cry.” She is clearly a filmmaker who doesn’t take things lightly, someone in search of such a ferocious level of commitment to her subject that she can “feel it was taking over my whole life.”

Working here with co-writer Mark Richard and lighted up by the Iraq-combat experiences of her half brother, Peirce has found a subject in the way the war in Iraq is tearing apart many of its soldiers, in combat and when they return home. This is a wrenching story of men at arms who cannot find peace outside the military circle, who return to civilian life on the horrific edge of violence and despair.

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In this “Stop-Loss” has a certain amount in common with “Boys Don’t Cry.” Peirce again concerns herself with men and violence as well as with individuals conflicted over gender roles trying to work out what society demands of them.

Also, like that earlier film, “Stop-Loss” has a formidable performance at its center in Phillippe’s portrait of squad leader Staff Sgt. Brandon King. An actor whose most recent work (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Breach”) has been his best, Phillippe has been finding himself with characters who display an edge, men whose coolness doesn’t quite hide a tormented interior.

That intensity is shown to its best advantage in “Stop-Loss’ ” opening segment, set in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Here, partly through soldier-shot home videos, we meet Sgt. King and the men in his squad, including powerful Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), King’s best friend since third grade, and slender Tommy Burgess (the gifted Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

As their squad handles roadblock duty in Tikrit, it comes under fire from a passing car. King and his squad give chase, and what results is a heart-in-throat combat sequence, perhaps the best we have seen coming out of Iraq, that enables us to feel the overwhelming tension of building-to-building fighting and how that fosters an intense camaraderie among the combatants.

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Peirce not only manages to powerfully hook us into the fate of men we barely know, she also shows how disturbed they are by the nature of combat in Iraq, by the way the enemy intertwines itself with innocent civilians and all but dares Americans to shoot. The event in Tikrit takes up only a fraction of “Stop-Loss’ ” time, but what happens there hangs over the rest of the film.

That battle takes place about a month before the men are sent back home, and “Stop-Loss” picks up the story in Brazos, Texas, hometown to Brandon and his friends. They are welcomed back by Brandon’s proud parents (Ciaran Hinds and Linda Emond), an oily senator (Josef Sommer) as well as Steve’s longtime fiancee and King family friend Michele (Abbie Cornish).

Despite all these happy faces, “Stop-Loss” is especially good at showing the malaise lurking under the relief of being home. Echoing the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Ground Truth,” this film illuminates the terrible disconnect that can happen when men trained to kill and haunted by death find themselves back in a civilian life that now seems as strange to them as Iraq once did.

As the squad leader, Brandon feels responsible for men like Tommy, who gets thrown out by his wife (Mamie Gummer) and retaliates by shooting up their unopened wedding presents. Brandon is proud of the service he’s given, but he wants to get out of that life. Unfortunately, as detailed by his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Boot Miller (a fine Timothy Olyphant), Brandon has been stop-lossed, victimized by fine print in his enlistment contract that allows the military to involuntarily extend his service if necessary.

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Incensed by what he considers to be “a back-door draft,” Brandon goes over the edge, fleeing the base and deciding to go to Washington to see if that friendly senator can do anything about it. Michele, disenchanted by Steve’s disturbing behavior since his return, agrees to come along.

This cross-country journey, the heart of the film, is as much a self-exorcism as a road trip, as Brandon visits the family of a dead comrade and calls on another friend in a military hospital. One grace of Phillippe’s performance is that he plays Brandon not as a flawed hero but as a man with real and serious psychological problems trying to survive in a world of moral collapse.

Australian actress Cornish, whose work back home in “Somersault” and costarring with Heath Ledger in “Candy” brought her notice, reveals herself here as “Stop-Loss’ ” secret weapon, able to be restrained but forceful as Phillippe’s character gets closer to going over the edge.

The film’s actors aside, “Stop-Loss” does have its share of rough spots. Some characters are too obvious, and Peirce’s emotional commitment causes her to overreach at moments, to present situations that are more awkward than we might like. But even as we’re noticing these bumps in the road, the film’s pace and passion are moving us inexorably forward.

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One of “Stop-Loss’ ” valuable qualities is the care it takes not to take obvious sides. It respects the patriotism of the men who serve while understanding just what Brandon means when he talks about “that box in your head where you put all the bad stuff you can’t deal with.” His box, he says, is full, and there’s nothing either loyalty or duty can do about it.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

“Stop-Loss.” MPAA rating: R for graphic violence and pervasive language. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In general release.

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