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Stop-Loss boasts the same emotional sensitivity and fine craftsmanship of filmmaker Kimberly Peirce's acclaimed feature debut, Boys Don't Cry. Unfortunately, it lacks the key element that made that film such a transcendent experience: a tour de force lead performance.

Ryan Phillippe stars as Brandon King, a good ol' boy Texas soldier who's just come home from Iraq. Brandon is eager to return to civilian life, but finds himself the victim of "stop-loss" -- a military policy wherein soldiers are sent back into combat after they've completed their voluntary contracts. He bolts, going on an impromptu road trip with his best pal's girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), hoping to find a way out.

The role of Brandon requires a good deal of dramatic heavy lifting, and Phillippe just isn't quite up to the task. He goes through the motions, occasionally hinting at solid, honest emotion, but he never fully reveals the conflicted soul viewers are supposed to connect with. There's something a little blank slate-ish about his presence, a stoicism that's been used to fine effect in films like Breach and Crash. Here, it doesn't quite work - we never truly feel Brandon's passion and anguish the way we should.

This wouldn't be quite so noticeable if the cast around Phillippe wasn't so uniformly excellent. As Brandon's unstable buddy Steve, rising star Channing Tatum (Step Up, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) proves that he's one to watch, infusing his performance with charisma and verve. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate that he's one of the most interesting young actors working today: playing a tormented, sleepy-eyed vet, he makes you feel his character's lack of direction and deep-seated pain. The Australian Cornish (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) is appropriately understated as Michelle, Steve's girlfriend, and lets her beautifully expressive eyes do most of the talking. Relative newcomer Rasuk, meanwhile, almost steals the show entirely as a badly-injured vet trying to keep his good spirits about him.

Though Phillippe's ho-hum performance leaves a bit of a hole at the center of the film, Peirce is still in fine form. She tells her story with a keen focus on simple human emotion and an obvious empathy for the plight of her characters. The Iraq-set combat scenes are brutal and devastating, while the States-side sequences pack just the right amount of dramatic punch. If nothing else, Stop-Loss shows us that Peirce isn't merely a one-hit wonder. We can only hope that next time, she'll find a star worthy of her talents.

Reviewed by Sarah Kuhn
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Genre: Drama   
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Written by: Mark Richard & Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish, and Victor Rasuk

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