Starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, and Channing Tatum. Rated 14A.

There’s an amusing moment in Stop-Loss when an AWOL soldier has the choice of staying on the lam in the U.S., sneaking into Mexico, getting shipped back to Iraq, or living safely in Toronto and maybe meeting a nice Canadian girl. As he contemplates that last combo, the look on the soldier’s face is pretty much that of someone who just had a dog shit in his mouth. There are many good things about this ambitious, emotionally affecting, if somewhat mucked-up war film from director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), but it’s nice that there’s still time to make fun of Canada.

Life as a U.S. soldier in Tikrit is no Disneyland ride. Beginning in the Iraqi city, the film comes out punching, from edgy mock home videos—representing the soldiers’ own movies set to angry hip-hop—to a tensely edited back-alley firefight. Suddenly the boys (what’s left of them) are stateside and stunned in tiny Brazos, Texas. All seems warm and fuzzy in the beers-and-steers bosom of friends and family—and Peirce and cowriter Mark Richard convey affection for these drawling rednecks—until it isn’t.

Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe, believably anguished in tight T-shirts), who’s completed his tour of duty, is being “stop-lossed”. Stop-loss means “screw you” from Uncle Sam: your ass is going back to the combat hell you’re supposed to be done with. Brandon, sweating guilty flashbacks about in-country acts, goes AWOL with sexy-tough Michele (excellent Australian actor Abbie Cornish), fiancée of soldier pal Steve (Channing Tatum).

Peirce and Richard are unquestionably in the war-sucks/fuck-the-president (which Brandon says, with relish) camp, and, with this stellar cast, they throw in every heart-wrenching, gritty cliché of this genre. Despite real-person resonance, we’ve seen these traumatized soldiers (including a haunting Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before. Twists and turns, some tragic, are spottable miles away without a scope. Yet the no-win hopelessness of Brandon’s dilemma sticks in the throat like the dust of Tikrit.