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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with director Kimberly Peirce and co-writer Mark Richard; The Making of STOP-LOSS; A Day in Boot Camp; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary by Kimberly Peirce.

STOP-Loss is a controversial policy in the United States that involves the involuntary extension of a military serviceman’s enlistment contract in order to retain them beyond the normal end of service.

In the case of the war on terror and Iraq, it has been used to reclaim over 80,000 American soldiers for further tours of duty, most often against their wishes.

Kimberly Peirce’s thought-provoking film examines this policy from the point of view of the young men living with its consequences – war-weary heroes who each respond in different ways to the prospect of returning to conflict.

It poses some intelligent questions that it doesn’t profess to answer and examines the notion of betrayal and comradeship in often heartbreaking fashion. But the co-writer and director is also aided by a strong cast, who each deliver the goods.

Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) is hailed a hero following the daring rescue of some of his colleagues following an ambush in Iraq. Back in America, he’s painted in glory but is haunted by the aftermath of the ambush.

His lifelong best friend, Sgt Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), is also conflicted, weighing up the prospect of another tour with his responsibility to his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish).

Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), meanwhile, is a volatile comrade in arms who cannot get it together back in the real world and whose constant meltdowns place his career in jeopardy.

All are trying to adjust… but when Brandon is stop-lossed and redeployed against his will, the staff sergeant goes AWOL and determines to head to Washington to take his case before a sympathetic senator. His decision puts him at odds with his family and friends.

Peirce, whose previous film Boys Don’t Cry won Hilary Swank an Oscar, opens her film with an unflinching look at life in Iraq that effectively sets the tone in terms of underlining the fears and anxieties of the men who don’t want to return.

It then spends the remainder of its time in America, as the ex-soldiers try to live with the consequences of their actions. Violence, though, is never far away and frequently explodes in moments of rage.

Peirce, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Richard, does a fine job of balancing the issues, juxtaposing the brother-like bond that exists between men on the front line with their fears and frustrations with the current situation.

Philippe, too, is terrific as he resolves to make a stand against the stop-loss policy, whilst being aware it might alienate him from his best friend and, quite possibly, consign him to a life in hiding.

But there’s strong support from Tatum, as the best friend, Cornish, as Shriver’s enraged fiancée who accompanies Brandon on the road, and Timothy Olyphant, as a tough superior officer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, too, even though his character feels under-developed and his story arc seems obvious, while Ciaran Hinds could also have benefited from more time as Brandon’s staunchly loyalist father.

But even though Peirce occasionally struggles to give every character enough time to shine, the film never fails to engage emotionally and fully earns its powerful conclusion.

Cinema-goers may look upon the prospect of yet another Iraq movie with war-weary eyes, but Stop-Loss is well worth the investment of time and thought. It’s a provocative piece that’s boosted by a great young cast.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 112mins
UK DVD Release: August 18, 2008