The film begins with Isaac “Eyeball” Miller (Rob Brown) videotaping Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) playing the guitar in a tent full of soldiers in Iraq. Tommy and Eyeball sing as we are introduced to Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), who have been friends since childhood. Footage is shown of the soldiers joking around, Tommy being baptized by Al “Preacher” Colson (Terry Quay) and then we see the soldiers checking vehicles for bombs. Steve shows Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) pictures of his fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish). Rico says that she’s hot, especially when Steve accidentally shows Rico too many pictures and he sees Michelle taking off her clothes. Brandon tells them to quit horsing around and get back on guard. A car comes to the checkpoint in the road and Steve shoots at the ground to make it stop. Inside is a scared family, who Brandon tells to keep their hands in plain sight. As he looks them over, he sees a car speeding towards them. Brandon lets the family go through the checkpoint and men from the speeding car fire at the soldiers. They return fire, and the car speeds off. Brandon and his men go after the car, driving down streets and winding up in an alley. All the soldiers get out of their vehicles except for one, who remains with the mounted machine gun. The soldiers kick in the door to a building and search it. They don’t find anyone, and so they continue down the alley. They are ambushed by numerous gunmen hiding on the rooftops. A big shoot out ensues, and an RPG is fired at the army vehicles, which kills the soldier with the mounted machine gun. The soldiers manage to kill many of the gunmen, but another RPG is fired at a car next to Tommy. Rico sees it, tosses Tommy aside, and shields him from the blast. Brendan goes over to where they are and lifts Rico off of Tommy. Tommy is alright, but Rico is badly burned. Preacher fires at the shooters but his gun jams. Shortly afterwards, he is shot in the neck and face. His blood splatters on Tommy, who goes berserk and fires wildly at all the gunmen he sees. Steve follows a gunman into a building by himself as Brendan tries to get him to stay with everyone.
Brandon runs into the building where Steve went to, and hears gunfire coming from the top of the staircase. Steve yells out that he’s been hit, and tells Brandon where the shooters are. Brandon throws a grenade into a room and kills the gunmen. He finds Steve in a kitchen, firing at someone in a living room. Brandon throws a grenade inside and goes inside after it explodes. He finds the splattered remains of the shooter, but also sees that a family including a child has been killed as well. Brandon picks up Steve and helps him out of the kitchen. Next, we see a montage of Eyeball’s videos, showing the soldiers burying their dead comrades. The soldiers are put on buses and sent back to Texas. Lt. Col. Boot Miller (Timothy Olyphant) compliments Steve on his fine shooting and tells him to consider going to sniper school. Boot then tells the soldiers that there is a parade set up for them in town. He lays down some rules for the men while they are on leave no drinking and driving, no fighting with civilians, no having sex with underage girls, e.t.c… The soldiers are brought to town and take part in the parade. Brandon waves to his proud parents Ida (Linda Emond) and Roy (Ciaran Hinds). Michelle runs up to the car Steve is riding in and gives him a big kiss. Since Brandon and Steve are from the town, most of the celebrations are focused on them. Brandon is awarded the purple hart, and his friend Shorty (Alex Frost) yells out for him to give a speech, which makes the entire crowd yell for the same. Boot tells Brandon to give the people what they want and so he goes to the microphone. Brandon stumbles with his words, saying that he wasn’t expecting to give a speech. He talks about how he’s not the only one who’s fighting, and he talks about how when they came back into town, he saw a truck full of corn and he wanted to roll down his window to smell it but couldn’t. Boot signals Steve over to the stand, where he saves Brandon and gets the crowd cheerful again. Afterwards, all the soldiers are reunited with their families and loved ones.
Senator Orton Worrell (Josef Sommer) introduces himself to Brandon and tells him that he’s made his town proud. He also makes mention that he’s pulled some strings to have Rico sent to a hospital stateside. Brandon is happy to hear that, and Worrell tells him that if he ever needs anything, he should tell him. He also invites him to come down to Washington D.C. Brandon tells Worrell that he would like it if he would talk to Rico’s family, who are present. Both Brandon and Worrell go to his family and give their condolences while also giving the good news that he will be sent back home. Michelle tells Brandon that she’s happy he’s home and then makes out with Steve. Tommy is happy to be reunited with his wife Jeanie (Mamie Gummer). Later that night, the soldiers and their loved ones go out to the local bar to celebrate. Two girls get Brandon to drink tequila and welcome him back. Everyone seems to have a good time. Brandon gets the band to play “Here Comes the Bride” for Steve and Michelle, saying that they’re finally getting married. He gets them to get up for a dance, but Steve is so drunk that he can’t walk. He stays behind at their table while Brandon dances with Michelle. Tommy can’t help but talk about going back to Iraq to kill whoever killed Preacher. Roy tries to get him to calm down, since he’s upsetting the women. A man comes over to Jeanie and asks her to dance. She politely refuses, and he asks her again. She again refuses, and Tommy tells him that she said no. The man knows that they’re heroes and doesn’t want any trouble, walking away. Tommy snaps and attacks the man, beating him up. The guy’s friends join in on the fight, and so does Steve and the others. Brandon pulls Tommy off and orders him to stop fighting. Everyone stops, and Brandon makes a joke to calm the crowd. Tommy gets drunk and stumbles out of the bar.
Later on, Brandon unpacks his things at home while Eyeball videotapes him. Brandon gets a call from Michelle, who tells him to come over. Worried, he drives out to Steve’s house, where he finds Steve digging a trench hole in his front yard while wearing only his underwear. Michelle is worried, since Steve just snapped in the middle of the night and started digging the hole. She also tells Brandon that Steve has a pistol with him. Knowing that Steve is drunk, Brandon tries to get him to stop digging but he refuses. Michelle and Brandon go inside the house, where most everything is wrecked (Steve broke a lot of things before he started to dig). Brandon sees that Michelle has a black eye, and she says that she caught a backhand while he was thrashing about. Steve finishes digging his hole and lays down in it, holding his pistol on his chest. Brandon decides to stay for the night and sits outside when Tommy drives down the street and crashes his car into a pole nearby. He’s also still drunk, and he offers Brandon a beer. Brandon sees that Tommy has all his wedding gifts in the backseat. Tommy explains that Jeanie kicked him out, and he brought all the wedding gifts because they were never opened. He asks if he can crash at Brandon’s ranch, and Brandon tells him that it’s a good idea for everyone if they all go out for the day. The next day Brandon, Tommy, Shorty, and some other friends are at Brandon’s ranch. Shorty has set up Tommy’s wedding gifts as targets, and Tommy has him read out the cards before he blasts the gifts with a shotgun. While sitting on Tommy’s trunk, Brandon hears noises coming from inside. He opens the trunk and out pops Steve, who’s incredibly hung-over and is still in his underwear. He vomits on the ground while the others laugh, and then he dunks his head in the cooler they have. He tells Tommy to stop shooting his gifts, but he won’t. Fed up, Steve grabs a rifle and shoots the remaining gifts, telling them it’s over. Brandon suddenly fires a shot near Steve, which pisses him off, but they see that he shot a snake that was coming near the group.
Eyeball shows Shorty and the others a video montage of their time in Iraq, showing the soldiers bonding and lots of destruction. Outside, Brandon skins the snake he killed and gets on Steve’s nerves. Brandon is pissed that he hit Michelle and is pissed that Steve got a black eye as well, stating that Boot didn’t want any fighting while they were on leave. They eventually make up though, and they horse around with the dead snake’s head. They see that Tommy is drinking and sitting by himself away from the others. Brandon waves his hand in front of Tommy’s face, but he is unresponsive. Brandon and Steve cheer him up by carrying him over to the group. The next day, Steve and Brandon report back to base. Brandon is excited since today is the end of his duty. While giving back his equipment, Tommy comes up and thanks him for covering when he didn’t show on time. Brandon takes Tommy aside and tells him that since today is his last day, Tommy will now become the group leader. However, he wants Tommy to get control over himself and shape up. Tommy says that he will and walks off by himself as Brandon hands over his remaining equipment. Brandon goes to an office, where he is informed that he has been stop-loss, which means that his tour has been involuntarily extended and he will be sent back to Iraq ASAP. He can’t believe it, since today was supposed to be his last day. Brandon goes to Boot’s office, where he voices his complaints. Boot tells him that they need every soldier they can get over in Iraq. No matter what issue Brandon brings up, Boot’s reply is the same he’s being sent back and there’s simply nothing he can do about it. Brandon says fuck the war and fuck the president. Boot has had enough and orders for him to be sent to the brigade for the remainder of his leave, hoping he will change his attitude because he will be sent back to Iraq.
Brandon is escorted outside by two guards. They come near a jeep when Brandon stops walking. He attacks the guards and beats them up, stealing one of their cell phones. He then steals Steve’s jeep and drives off the base. Brandon pulls over and calls Steve, telling him that he messed up real bad and he’s been designated as AWOL. Steve tells him to come back to the base before things get worse, but Brandon refuses to be sent back. He drives to his family home, parks the jeep out of sight, and then sneaks to his house when he sees both police officers and soldiers out looking for him. The cop asks Roy where Brandon is, but he doesn’t know. He urges him to get Brandon to turn himself in or else he will be considered a fugitive. After they leave, Brandon goes to his parents and embraces them. Roy understands if he’s scared of going back, but Brandon says that he’s not scared. He’s pissed that the army is screwing him over some fine print in his contract, and his family is done fighting the war. Ida is prepared to drive Brandon herself out of the country, but he doesn’t want that. He wants to take this to court and get Senator Worrell on his side. He plans to go to Washington D.C. and Michelle volunteers to help him. Michelle and Brandon drive away in her car. They don’t know exactly how to get to Washington D.C., but they’ll find a way. Their first stop is at a motel, where Brandon sits down on the jumping board of the swimming pool and stares into the water. Michelle calls Jeanie and asks her to cover for her at work, but she tells her that she’s been fired. Tommy got drunk and crashed his car into the store. Michelle wonders what the hell happened to these guys. Brandon thinks he sees Rico underwater and jumps in to save him. Michelle rushes downstairs to calm him down. Brandon pulls Rico to the surface, but finds that he just pulled up a towel. The next morning, Michelle wakes up Brandon by the pool, startling him because he thinks he hears gunfire. He tells her that she can go home and doesn’t have to help him, and then they both spot police officers entering the motel. They search every room for Brandon, but he and Michelle sneak away and drive off.
Eventually, Brandon calls Steve, who wants to know where the hell he is. He says that he’s on his way with Michelle to Washington D.C. to talk with Worrell. Steve tells him that he’s wasting his time, since Boot already knew what he was going to do and contacted Worrell already. Also, Tommy has been arrested for DUI and Brandon needs to come down there, since he’s their commanding officer. Tommy gets chewed out for being arrested, but he keeps on saying that he just wants to be a soldier and he’ll clean up his act. Steve is pissed that Brandon got Michelle caught up in this whole thing, but Brandon says that he’ll call back and hangs up. Brandon and Michelle go to Preacher’s home to visit his family. His parents are glad to see Brandon, but Preacher’s brother is not. Michelle finds out that Preacher was stop-loss too and tried to fight it in court, but it was futile. He was sent back and was killed during Brandon’s last mission. His brother tells Michelle of a place where AWOL soldiers go to for safety, and then Brandon tells Preacher’s family how he died. His parents are grateful for Brandon coming all the way down there and telling them how their son was killed, but his brother is cold towards Brandon for leading his men into an ambush. Brandon and Michelle leave, and Preacher’s brother sarcastically tells Brandon good luck in getting out.
As they walk back to their car, Brandon sees that a window has been broken into and all their stuff has been stolen. He tells Michelle to stay with the car and follows two guys walking into an alley. They dump all his belongings onto the ground and start to go through it when Brandon confronts them. He doesn’t see a third guy sneak up behind him and smash his head with a piece of wood, causing a big gash above Brandon’s eye to bleed out. The three robbers stomp on Brandon while he’s on the ground, but he breaks one of their legs and gets up. One of the robbers tries to punch him, but Brandon breaks his wrists and then gets held at gunpoint by the third man. Brandon quickly disarms him and then orders everyone to get on their knees and puts their hands on their heads. He gets confused again and thinks that he’s back in Iraq. He tells them to pray to Allah, and then fires a shot right next to a robber’s head, causing him to fall onto the ground in pain. He’s ready to execute all three when Michelle drives up. She recollects their stuff and then tells Brandon to give her the gun. He refuses, and she threatens to leave him there right now if he doesn’t hand over the gun. Brandon calms down and gives the pistol to Michelle, who removes the bullets and puts the gun in her pants. They drive off and go to another motel, paying for a room. Brandon cleans up the blood from his head and chest. Michelle helps clean up his wound, telling him that he’ll need stitches. He won’t have any of that and puts two bandages on his gash. Brandon eventually grabs the gun back, puts on a shirt, and goes to the place where Preacher’s brother said was safe for AWOL soldiers. He sees a soldier packing his things into a car and getting ready to leave with his family. The soldier tells Brandon that it’s useless to fight going back in court, and tells him that the only thing he can do is keep running (the soldier’s been on the run for 14 months). His family can’t take anymore of not getting a paycheck and constantly being in hiding, so they’re going to Canada to start fresh. The soldier gives Brandon a phone number for someone in New York who helps AWOL soldiers get out of the country. While Brandon is out, Michelle calls someone on the phone.
The next morning, there’s a loud banging on the motel room door. Brandon, who’s been sleeping in the bathtub with the pistol on his chest, thinks its gunfire again and gets out. He looks through the peephole and sees Steve. Michelle (who called him the previous night) opens the door for him and Steve walks in, wearing his uniform. He tells Brandon that he’s here to take him back to the base. He talked with Boot and made a deal with him if Steve can bring back Brandon within 14 hours, all charges will be dropped. Brandon still does not want to go back, and then he realizes that Steve made another deal with Boot. If he brings in Brandon, he’ll go to sniper school. Both Michelle and Brandon can’t believe that Steve sold out like that, but Steve maintains that being in the army is his life. He’s proud to serve his country, and Michelle asks him when they’re getting married. He says that they can marry when he gets back from his next tour, but she’s sick of waiting. She’s already waited five years, and she kicks him out of the room. Brandon goes outside and talks with Steve, who can’t believe that Michelle just broke up with him. Steve tries to convince him that they can do another tour together and make it back home again. Brandon says that he almost died the last time they were there, and Steve tells him to think of all the lives he saved because of what they did. The other soldiers need Brandon to lead them again, but Brandon doesn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of his friends again. Steve also tells him that Tommy is losing it and he needs Brandon’s guidance before he leaves. While driving, Michelle and Brandon stop at a bar to drink tequila. She tells him that Steve is married to the army, and she doesn’t want to be an officer’s wife. She can’t wait another year without Steve touching her face.
Back in Texas, Steve and the other soldiers have a night of drinking at the bar. Tommy, drunk, tries to go off by himself, but Steve goes after him. Tommy stops at a jewelry display and looks inside, saying that he’ll get Jeanie to marry him again. Steve tries to calm him down, but Tommy tells him that he shouldn’t talk, since he can’t even control his own girl. Hurt, Steve walks off back towards the bar while Tommy tries to apologize. Tommy winds up throwing a beer bottle through the window display of the jewelry store, causing the alarm to go off. He sits by himself on the curb as Steve walks back to him. Elsewhere, Brandon and Michelle talk in their car. He’s having a hard time opening up to her, because they’ve been childhood friends and he’s afraid of what she will think of him if she finds out the things he did. She says that Steve never talked to her about his time over there, and encourages Brandon to open up. He tells Michelle about the last mission he was on, when he followed Steve into the building while they were ambushed. As he was helping Steve out of the kitchen, a man carrying a child threatened them with a grenade. Brandon shot the man and child to death, and but it was too late. The man pulled the pin from the grenade and it rolled towards them. Brandon and Steve were almost killed by the blast. He doesn’t want to experience anything like that again. Michelle urges him to call the phone number the soldier gave him. He gets out and calls from a payphone. The man tells Brandon that if he wants to get out of the country, he will have to pay a thousand dollars and make his way to New York. Michelle trades her car for $700 and a motorcycle.
Steve, Tommy, and Shorty are out at Brandon’s ranch again, shooting empty beer bottles. Tommy plays his guitar and says that he’s done shooting. He says that he’s going back to his room to play some songs. Tommy walks off by himself, playing his guitar as Steve and Shorty stay behind to shoot some more. Brandon and Michelle make another stop at a hospital, where Rico has been transported. Rico’s right arm and leg had to be amputated, his face and back have been burnt, and he’s blind in both eyes. Rico is happy that Brandon came to see him, telling him he’s the first one to come visit. Even though he can’t see Michelle, he remembers what she looks like from Steve constantly showing off her pictures in Iraq. Brandon wheels Rico outside while Michelle plays pool with a wounded soldier (who has a prosthetic shoulder/arm and prosthetic legs). Brandon tells Rico about him being stop-loss, and Rico hopes that he told Boot to fuck off. Brandon talks about how he thought he was drowning at the motel, and he couldn’t save him. Rico tells him that he did save him, and then asks for him to wheel him out of the sun. Brandon asks him if he’s being treated well at the hospital, and Rico says that he is. However, it sounds like a horror movie at night, due to the other soldiers screaming and moaning in pain. Brandon brings Rico back to his room and hands him his prosthetic arm. Brandon helps Rico put it on and then holds his hand.
Brandon and Michelle make it to New York and meet the man who agreed to help them. For the thousand dollars, he gives Brandon a new passport and tells him that he’s helped numerous soldiers who’ve gone AWOL before. He sends them to Canada, where most are happy. Brandon doesn’t want to go there, but he has no choice. The man tells him that once he’s gone, he can never return for anything. He tells Brandon to call his loved ones and say his goodbyes before he leaves. Brandon calls his mother, who has some bad news. Tommy shot himself at the ranch. Steve, Shorty, Eyeball, Brandon’s parents, Jeanie, Michelle, and dozens more turn up for Tommy’s funeral. The soldiers fold the American flag and Steve presents it to Jeanie, telling her that the army is proud of Tommy and how he served his country. Steve can barely hold back his tears, and Jeanie clutches the flag. After the funeral and after everyone leaves, Brandon comes to Tommy’s grave as the grave digger is burying him. Steve walks up to Brandon and beats him up, telling him he came back too late. Brandon punches Steve in the chest, but Steve tackles Brandon to the ground and lets out all his rage. Brandon eventually gets Steve in a choke hold, telling him to look at the graves around them. He says that if Steve goes back to Iraq, he’s going to be the next person they’re going to bury. They stop fighting, and Steve says that ever since they were kids, he always knew what Brandon was thinking, but now he’s at a loss because he has no idea who he is anymore. Brandon leaves and goes to his ranch, where he packs up Tommy’s belongings into a box. Ida, Michelle, and Brandon drive to the Mexico border but Brandon stops the car before they cross over. He says that once he crosses the border, things will never be the same. He’ll just be the ghost of who he was, and he’ll never be able to see any of them again. He can’t bring himself to do it, and apologizes to his mother.
Next, we see soldiers getting back on the bus and being prepared to be sent to Iraq. Brandon has finally decided to go back, and he sits down next to Steve. He waves goodbye to his parents, but Ida can’t stand to see him go away again and cries in Roy’s arms. Michelle briefly waves goodbye to Brandon and Steve, who reconcile with each other. Shorty and Eyeball can also be seen on the bus, going back to Iraq with them.
The film ends with title cards, which state how many soldiers have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 and how many have been stop-loss.
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