This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 13 January 2004
|Miramax Home Entertainment
||R for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality
Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern,
Michael Pena, Leon Robinson, Dean Stockwell, Gabriel Mann
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
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
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
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.
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.
|Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
|Letterboxed 2.35:1 (enhanced for 16X9 televisions)
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.
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||36-inch Sony XBR