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Buffalo Soldiers (2001) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 January 2004

Buffalo Soldiers

Miramax Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality
starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Leon Robinson, Dean Stockwell, Gabriel Mann
release year: 2001
film rating: Two stars
sound/picture: Three stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Black comedies about the military are not common these days, and really, never were. There's only a handful of good ones -- "MASH," "Dr. Strangelove," "Apocalypse Now" -- which make their points clearly and strongly, and which have a point of view. The war comedies that don't have a point of view, like "Kelly's Heroes," can be entertaining but also tend to leave a kind of sour taste in terms of ethics and morality.

"Buffalo Soldiers" is one of the latter. It debuted at a film festival on September 7, 2001, and because of the events of the 11th, was quickly put on the shelf by its American distributor, Miramax. It was cautiously let out of prison in early 2003, but vanished from theaters rather quickly.

The problems are partly conceptual, partly stylistic. Australian director Gregor Jordan adopts a careful, understated approach, as though the film were a drama rather than a pitch-black comedy. This dry style largely undercuts the film; it has a reasonable, measured pace but should have been much quicker in terms of timing and dialog.

In his rather monotonous commentary track, director Gregor says that the novel (of the same title) by Robert O'Connor was even darker than the film, with the leading character, Pvt. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), being a dope addict in addition to all his character flaws. This was a step in the right direction, but the film is still bleak and depressing.

It's 1989 Germany, on an American army base. Elwood is attached to the supply battalion, giving him a perfect opportunity for black market activities and cooking morphine into cocaine. He doesn't sell the stuff himself, but makes deals with another soldier even more corrupt than he is. Elwood was given the choice between going into the army and prison, and chose wisely. There are three things he loves about Germany: the luxurious Mercedes Benz his illegal activities have paid for, that there is no speed limit on the autobahn, and that he has a "black market for anything I can get my hands on."

One of the principal points of the movie is that when soldiers have no war to fight, they'll spin off their energy into other activities, and they're not always positive. Not only does Elwood run a black market ring, but there are frequent deaths among the enlisted men, considerable racism, and occasional mini-wars, soldier against soldier. The film merely observes this without comment, not suggesting any way to alleviate the situation. (In his commentary, the soft-spoken Jordan says that in US army bases in Europe at this time, the situation was actually much worse than shown here.)

Things are looking good for Elwood; he has complete control over Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), a nice but ineffectual man who should never have enlisted. And he's having a hot affair with the Colonel's wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

A tank full of totally drugged-out soldiers wanders off course through the middle of an Oktoberfest, and over a gas station. The tank crew never notices when the gasoline explodes -- they can't figure out why their video view screens go all orange -- and kills a couple of Army truck drivers near by. Elwood and his two principal accomplices, Garcia (Michael Pena) and Stoney (Leon Robinson), happen upon the drivers' trucks and immediately steal them.

They turn to be loaded with a wide range of high-tech armaments, so Elwood arranges to trade them to the local Turkish gangster from 30 kilos of morphine to be cooked into heroin.

Trouble is the supply battalion has just received a new top sergeant, Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn), a tough, by-the-book martinet who immediately targets Elwood and his accomplices. So Elwood begins dating Lee's daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), but makes the mistake of falling for her.

Things get worse: Lee arranges for Elwood to be along the soldiers who use Elwood's Mercedes for target practice (at first horrified, Elwood gets into the spirit of it). Someone murders Stoney, and a gawky newcomer, Pvt. Knoll (Gabriel Mann), is assigned as Elwood's partner in the room that until now Elwood occupied in solitary splendor.

Something, Elwood knows, has got to be done. The path to the climax involves more deaths, betrayal, and a lot of exploding drugs.

The major failing of "Buffalo Soldiers" is that there simply is no one in the film to like. The only really blameless character is Berman, and he's a pathetic loser. Yes, it pits rebels against authority like most military black comedies, but in "MASH," for instance, the rebels were also dedicated doctors who fought brass for clear reasons. Here, the hero is a dope peddler, a thief and almost completely amoral.

Joaquin Phoenix is fine in the lead role, but he doesn't have the innate charm and likeability that Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford and other stars brought to similar roles. It's not just hard to identify with Elwood, it's hard to WANT to identify with him. This is not the actor's fault; he could have cranked up the charm had the script and director pointed him in that direction. But it does make "Buffalo Soldiers" a somewhat sour experience.

Don't misunderstand: this is not by any stretch of the imagination an anti-American movie, and the fact that it's a British-German coproduction is simply because that's who bought the novel. It isn't even anti-military, it's just a description of what was happening with these overtrained young men during a period when it was particularly boring to be in the military.

Furthermore, I suspect the average viewer of the film would enjoy it more if it were seen with a group; comedies almost always work better when watched with others. The feedback from one audience member to another enhances and broadens the overall reaction to the film. If you want to see the movie, round up a few friends before you rent the DVD.

The photography by Oliver Stapleton is low-key with desaturated colors and usually overcast skies. Everything looks damp and chilly, suggesting further why these young men are at such loose ends. The score includes a lot of early hip-hop and other hot-then songs, and is one of the best aspects of the movie. The sound is crisp and fresh, with a judicious use of surround -- exterior scenes look and sound like they are set in the broad outdoors.

The central image in "Buffalo Soldiers" is Elwood's recurring dream of falling like a nuclear bomb from a plane into the streets of a city below. Over and over the dream repeats, until it's echoed by real-life events at the ending. This suggests that Elwood is aware that his free-living life style is deeply dangerous, but the actions of the movie are counter to this idea. The falling scenes, which are beautifully done, end up as pointless as the entire film.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
aspect ratio(s):
Letterboxed 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16X9 televisions)
special features: Commentary track with director Gregor Jordan; "Behind the Iron Curtain" -- a making-of documentary; "Anatomy of a Scene" from the Sundance Channel. A British-German coproduction.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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