After two grueling tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, for which he received a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), along with fellow hometown boys Sergeant Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), PFC Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Isaac "Eyeball" Butler (Rob Brown), return to a hero's welcome in their small Texas hometown, Brazos. Burgess is only on leave, but Shriver and King have served their time and had quite enough. Just a few weeks before his discharge, Brandon led his squad into a narrow Tikrit alley, where they came under heavy fire from Iraqi insurgents. Three of Brandon's men were killed in the ambush, a fourth was severely wounded, and several Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were caught in the crossfire. The fact that Brandon saved Steve, his best friend since childhood, from certain death hasn't lessened the horror or the guilt of that afternoon, and Brandon's not the only one who's brought the war home. After a night of heavy celebrating, Steve hits his fiancee Michelle (Abby Cornish) and, convinced he's back on some faraway battlefield, climbs into the ditch he's dug on the front lawn and passes out in his underwear. Burgess, meanwhile, has been kicked out of the house he shares with his new bride on account of his heavy drinking. All Brandon wants to do is settle down on his family's ranch, but when he returns to base to turn in his gear, he's shocked to find that he's been redeployed to Iraq, even though his contract with the Army is officially up. His commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) tells him the Army can't afford to let a strong leader like Brandon go -- troops are spread too thin, recruitment is down and there's no draft. In military terminology, Brandon has been "stop-lossed" by order of the president, who has the power to extend a soldier's enlistment beyond his or her original contract when national security is at stake. Brandon, however, has no intention of returning to the hellhole he barely survived, and goes AWOL. With Michelle in the driver's seat, he makes a run for Washington in hopes of appealing to his senator (Josef Sommer) for help. Instead, he finds himself slipping into an underground network where other stop-lossed soldiers -- many heroes like himself -- have been living like outlaws and barely surviving.
Inspired by the story of her brother, who, like Brandon King, enlisted right after 9/11 in hopes of protecting his country, only to find himself fighting a very different kind of war in another country altogether, Peirce originally planned to make a documentary about returning soldiers. She changed her mind after she began hearing stories about stop-lossed soldiers who, rather than return to Iraq, went from "war heroes" to wanted fugitives overnight. Peirce's script, cowritten by award-winning novelist Mark Richard (Fishboy, The Ice at the Bottom of the World), smacks of authenticity -- as she did in BOYS DON'T CRY, she evinces a natural feel for the cadences of small-town American life -- and the film includes footage modeled on the homemade videos combat soldiers have been shooting, editing and distributing among themselves. It's a richly textured, psychologically acute film that takes an unblinking look at the tattered life of the returning soldier, and it's boosted by two powerful performances from Phillippe and the increasingly impressive Tatum, a former underwear model who has somehow turned into a fine actor. leave a comment --Ken Fox
It's been nearly 10 years since director Kimberly Peirce made her shattering debut with BOYS DON'T CRY, but it's been worth the wait. Peirce's second feature is a fictional tale of the real-life ordeal faced by many returning soldiers: Just when they think they've fulfilled their service contract, they're ordered back to active duty.