(CNN) -- Through 2006, at least 81,000 U.S. military have been "stop-lossed" since September 11, 2001. That means they have been refused discharge and compelled to serve another tour of active duty, even though their original term has expired.
Channing Tatum, left, and Ryan Phillippe discuss their Iraq war experiences in "Stop-Loss."
That's what happens to Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) on the day he believes he's getting out of the army.
The way he sees it, it's like his get-out-of-jail card has been revoked at the prison gates, and he's been sent back to death row. And this is how they treat a war hero with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
In "Stop-Loss," he rants at the commander in chief, slugs a couple of soldiers, steals a jeep and soon goes AWOL with his best friend's girl. It's the beginning of a long ride to nowhere.
Unfortunately, this also marks the point when the air begins to seep out of this scrupulous, anguished, but frustratingly stop-and-go offering from Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"). "Stop-Loss" is a movie that wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve, but which falters on Phillippe's limitations as an actor and a central character who never snaps into focus.
Peirce -- who cowrote the screenplay with Mark Richard -- has been linked with a string of intriguing projects in the nine years since Hilary Swank picked up her best actress Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry," but "Stop-Loss" is the first to reach the screen. That long wait may be one reason why this earnest, sympathetic picture winds up so self-conscious and stilted.
The first half-hour promises more. A prologue in Tikrit is convincingly hellish: Sgt. King leads his men into a gory street ambush that puts three men down, two permanently. Peirce intersperses the digital iMovies that are this conflict's public-private face more organically than Brian De Palma or Paul Haggis managed in, respectively, "Redacted" and "In the Valley of Elah"; they're a kind of recurring nightmare on a loop in Brandon's brain.
Peirce is also careful to couch criticism of the war in the troops' own less-than-dovish terms: "We should bomb them back to Bible times," one says.
Restored to Texas less permanently than he imagines, King is welcomed with marching bands and speeches. But the joy doesn't last. The next morning his buddy Steve (Channing Tatum) and Steve's fiancee Michelle (Abbie Cornish) are sporting matching shiners, and Mark (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is using his wedding gifts for target practice. This is the kind of vivid, revealing incident that kicks the returning soldiers' plight into life, but there simply aren't enough of them.
Veteran cinematographer Chris Menges plunges us into a sickly green neon nocturne of seedy bars and cheap motels. Peirce knows Texas, but Phillippe's committed performance still comes up short. He doesn't pack the weight to make Brandon's hair-trigger violence as dangerous as it's supposed to be (a run-in with three petty criminals is pure Hollywood), and too often the actor seems to be flailing for effect.
That's not all his fault. The script feels faithfully researched but dramatically old hat. On the road, encounters with the grieving parents of a fallen comrade and a badly wounded survivor from the original Tikrit episode (a standout performance from Vic Rasuk) further our sympathy for the vets but don't advance the story or shed much light on Brandon himself.
Cornish, a gifted Australian actress, has several strong scenes along the way, articulating the movie's nagging, problematic question -- "What's happened to these guys?" -- but we're never quite convinced why she's tagging along with her ex-boyfriend's buddy.
"Stop-Loss" is a conscientious and honorable effort to fight the good fight on behalf of the boys (and girls) in the firing line -- even those who can't face another go-around or have trouble living with what they've seen and done. But as a movie it can't seem to escape the sense of hopelessness that infects this conflict, and which audiences seem in no rush to embrace.