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Stop-Loss and 21 

Stop-Loss and 21 follow youth experiencing life outside their peers’ social norms. Both get their outsider view half-right. These good-looking movies lose balance by vying for grit while maintaining the glamour of Vogue magazine spreads. 

Stop-Loss is director Kimberly Peirce’s first film since receiving big attention for Boys Don’t Cry nine years ago. This return should incite more interest. Instead, Stop-Loss gets discarded as just another Iraq war drama nobody’s going to see. And that’s partially Peirce’s fault. 

For all the movie’s good intentions and moments where it almost develops into something, Peirce keeps inviting skepticism by letting melodrama take over her seriousness. Dramatizing the fragile subject of returned American soldiers’ instability, Peirce plays their patriotic disillusionment for showy breakdowns---a bar fight, a violent altercation with muggers. Stop-Loss only stays on its feet when human behaviour isn’t observed because of how it can fit into newspaper headlines. 

When Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) pays a hospital visit to a comrade severely maimed by a bomb, his friendly optimism marked with despair cuts to the psychic wounds of the story Peirce really wanted to tell. The dreamy small-town atmosphere developed here and in Boys Don’t Cry showcases real talent, let down by the simple-mindedness of this script. “What’s happened to them?” the former girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) of a returned soldier (Channing Tatum) asks. 

But her question underlines the movie’s obviousness: It basically answers itself. The cast of Phillippe, Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are mainly left in pitiable rebel-boy poses. This continues Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry tradition---where Brandon Teena became a symbol of martyrdom rather than being viewed with the dignity of a fallible, complex human being.

Stop-Loss’s sexy social misfits are mostly there to strike a pose. Sometimes worthwhile, it’s generally the Iraq war vet equivalent to The Lost Boys. 

The same type of glamorization hurts 21, where sheltered MIT nerd Ben Campbell is played by Across the Universe heartthrob Jim Sturgess, who barely displays any of the social maladjustment he often talks about. Needing $300,000 for Harvard med school, Campbell takes the offer of a professor (Kevin Spacey) to join in his covert student operation of Vegas blackjack card counters. 

This true story, shot with an attractive neon flashiness that tries turning every other scene into a montage, works best at detailing the appeal of this corrupt business for its hero. Having his future laid out for him, Ben for once begins enjoying the present. It’s the fallout that never hits hard enough---
Ben never really suffers because of his actions. Director Robert Luketic doesn’t recognize the way Vegas can feel like the most horrible place on Earth. By only detailing its drunken highs, the audience always remains too far ahead in the story. 

As the narrative tries to stay in Ben’s perspective, the other students in on this scheme are given no depth---they’re soulless sirens that lure him to the dark side by giving menacing delivery of lines like, “C’mon Ben, it’ll be funnn.” His headshot sex scene with a cohort (Kate Bosworth) is assembled with the crossfades of a primetime soap opera---reaching for an innocence that isn’t there. 21, like Stop-Loss, wants to be edgy without breaking out from the safety net.


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Vol 24, No 21
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