Detour of duty

THE HOLLYWOOD-Goes-to-Iraq movie has turned into something of a box office ghetto, but "Stop-Loss" may be able to break out.

It has more muscular studio backing, and an old-fashioned issue-movie sense of purpose that could serve it well - it's built around the so-called "back-door draft" that presses some Iraq-Afghanistan vets into service involuntarily.

"Stop-Loss" opens in Iraq, with a short combat prologue that establishes beyond all doubt the courage and honor of its main character - Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who helps his squad fight its way out of an ambush and risks his life to save a wounded comrade.

The sequence also grounds King as a man who's had his limit of combat. As the action unfolds, we feel him losing his stomach for the kind of unavoidable collateral damage that house-to-house action involves.

For King, the saving grace is that he's finally at the end of his tour, 150 combat missions behind him. He returns to Texas to an enthusiastic welcome-home parade and the love of a grateful community - there is even a U.S. senator on hand to slap him on the back.

There are immediate signs, though, that King and his comrades will not have a happy repatriation. What starts as a night of carousing turns into days, weeks of drinking and brawling. Girlfriends (Abbie Cornish) are abused, cars smashed, rednecks punched.

It's the sort of problematic re-adjustment covered in other homefront movies, but "Stop-Loss" is more focused and detailed. Director Kim Peirce became determined to make the definitive soldier's-eye-view movie after 9/11 inspired her brother to enlist. He served in Iraq and brought Peirce's attention to the emergency stop-loss provisions that enable the president to extend tours indefinitely - turning some volunteers into involuntary "draftees."

Peirce poured a ton of energy and six years into this project, and it's yielded some good stuff. In the movie's best scene, a soldier (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uses useless wedding gifts for target practice when his out-of-control behavior ends his marriage.

There is also, alas, a nagging familiarity to some of the material, and Peirce leans heavily on dialogue to define her characters - speeches about soldier psychology too often sound like war-movie boilerplate.

King, for instance, has a long speech that describes his transformation from patriotic enlisted man to professional soldier to killer, and the psychic toll this has taken. Another monologue explains that while soldiers enlist to serve their country, they fight for their buddies.

Watching Phillippe recite these words, it's hard not to think of "Flags of Our Fathers," which suggested all of this without saying any of it.

And the movie, for all the effort to ground it in reality, sometimes seems glaringly unreal. King has yet to hit 30, but he's a guy who's fought bloody wars in two theaters, who's seen it all and done it all.

Is this guy really going to jump into a car and drive from Texas to D.C., in the fervent belief that his stop-loss problems will disappear once he can "explain it all to the senator"?

That's a hopeless scene for any actor, even one with the natural guilelessness of Phillippe.

He does better in the movie's shrewdly done finale scenes, wherein it regains its footing. *

Produced by Kimberly Peirce, Mark Roybal, Scott Rudin, and Gregory Goodman, directed by Kimberly Peirce, written by Kimberly Peirce and Mark Richard, music by John Powell, distributed by Paramount.