Peirce starts the film in Iraq, with soldier Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his men getting provoked by gunfire out of a speeding car. They give chase and wind up trapped in an alley, where all sorts of horrors face them. After the ambush, soldiers, terrorists and civilians alike are dead. Brandon and his battered platoon eventually return to the States, with Brandon knowing that, as the result of his decisions (right or wrong), many were killed.
Brandon is an enlisted man, having joined the Army after Sept. 11, and he looks forward to his transition back into civilian life. Those plans are dashed when Boot, his commanding officer (a menacing Timothy Olyphant), tells him he's been "stop-lossed"--ordered back into battle even though he's supposedly fulfilled his time of service. No negotiation, no choice; he must return to Iraq.
Brandon wants nothing of it, and his commander orders him to the stockade. He escapes and goes AWOL, intending to contact a senator who was present when he was awarded Medals of Honor. He winds up on the road with Michelle (Abbie Cornish), where he wrestles with his sense of duty, feelings for his family and fellow soldiers, and loyalty to his country.
Phillippe does well here, although his fabricated Southern drawl gets a little tiresome and distracting at times. After his strong performances in Breach, Flags of Our Fathers and Crash, he again shows that he's far more than a pretty boy. Brandon King goes through a lot of moods and makes many surprising choices; Phillippe makes the complexities of the character more than convincing.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues his maturation into a fine actor as Tommy Burgess, a soldier in King's unit and his hometown friend. Tommy had a buddy die in his arms, and his struggles with alcohol have created problems on the home front. His wife has had enough, and even his war buddies are getting a little fed up. Add this to Brick and The Lookout as further proof Gordon-Levitt is an actor with staying power.
Most surprising is Channing Tatum as Steve Shriver, a returning soldier in King's unit being courted by Boot for sniper school. Tatum is best known for his roles in the crappy Step Up dance movies, and this is the first time he's managed to impress me with something other than his fancy feet. He has a cemetery confrontation with King that is one of the film's most memorable scenes.
Cornish, who was a stunning presence and one of the few things that didn't suck in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, does strong work as a woman trying to help a friend, even when his choices are less than wise. Her character goes from somebody along for the ride to somebody who must take control and bring some sense to a scary situation. Cornish may find herself in the running for some fine roles after her work in this movie; she's quite impressive.
It's been nine years since Peirce made a controversial splash with Boys Don't Cry, a film that garnered Hilary Swank an Oscar for playing another character named Brandon. Stop-Loss isn't nearly as consistent as that film; Pierce allows it to drift into melodrama at times, but she always manages to rein the proceedings back in. By the time Brandon makes his final choice, Stop-Loss, despite its flaws, makes a bold, haunting, disturbing statement.