Originally slated for release in 2001, Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers lay dormant in the can after the tragic events of 9/11. It just wasn't politically kosher to show the dark underbelly of the "volunteer" army, whose slogan of "Be All You Can Be" translates into "Steal All You Can Steal." Just beginning to get released in American markets two years later, the timing remains questionable. With American soldiers daily being killed during the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, the film's portrait of opportunistic soldiers continually fighting boredom in 1989 West Germany remains out of synch with the times. Its negative portrayal of the military will certainly play better in foreign markets, but Miramax must be calculating that they can recoup some of their investment with a limited U.S. arthouse release.
If the filmmakers are hoping for non-conformists to embrace this picture about military misfits, they're barking up the wrong tree—this is no clever M.A.S.H. or Catch-22 satirical take. Bluntly blasting U.S. military hypocrisy by showing inevitable systematic malfeasance when soldiers come from the dregs of American society, Buffalo Soldiers unevenly plays out its plot with far too heavy a hand (like the screenwriters are lackeys of Oliver Stone). A case where individual parts exceed the whole, the film's only saving graces come from outstanding acting performances.
Recalling the Apocalypse Now! scene before the USO show where a supply officer runs a black market and can conjure a plethora of drugs, convicted thief Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) opts to serve Uncle Sam for three years instead of serving 6 months in the pen, putting his considerable talents to use as an army supply officer. This puts him in perfect position to rule the black market on the Theodore Roosevelt Army Base, moving mass quantities of Mop-n-Glo cleaning supplies to eager German industrial customers. He also cooks a mean batch of heroin up for the base's head MP, Sgt. Saad (Shiek Mahmud-Bey) for a percentage. Anti-hero Elwood has collected enough profits to outfit his room with a television and sofas and to procure a Mercedes, but he's a charmer that merely wants to get through his term of service comfortably: “War is hell, but peace is fucking boring!”
From the opening dream sequence Elwood's voice over shares his secret fear of falling, but unlike 99% of the population he always smashes into the ground before waking. He's a bit different from his comrades in other ways—he's the only one to show a bit of compassion for a soldier inadvertently killed during an ill-advised indoor football game, cries for a murdered companion, and offers a band-aid to a bloodied roommate. He's also much smarter and more entrepreneurial than his fellow soldiers, many of whom don't even know whether they are in West or East Germany.
Elwood's superior officer, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), is a well-meaning but dull-witted career military man, much better suited to run a California winery (his dream) than oversee the supplies in Stuttgart. Not only does he fail to recognize his wife's infidelity, he ineptly falls for the oldest military ploy in history—or at least since the Trojan War. Berman can't even blow his stack like a hard assed officer, humorously apologizing to Elwood when he takes out his anger on him. Things are going far too smoothly for Elwood, so naturally it changes when new Top Sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives on the scene to mop up the mess. Complicating matters is a matter of $3 million dollars worth of stolen weapons that falls into Elwood's lap and the sergeant's fetching daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin).
Fortunately for the film's sake,
Paquin arrives in time to give Phoenix a worthy partner to share screen
time. Harris wonderfully captures the essence of an incompetent
military officer while Glenn competently portrays the hard ass military
reformer, but those scenes have been played out too many times in army
flicks. Actually, so have love story sub-plots, but both Phoenix and
Paquin develop their relationship so naturally that it flows
believably. And the necessary on-screen chemistry is palpable. Anyone
who's ever been in love can relate to Elwood's breakthrough moment.
Knowing Elwood's phobia of falling sets up the diving board scene,
where Elwood simultaneously quivers with uncertainty but doggedly busts
through his fears to pursue Robyn. Phoenix ranks as one of the best of
his generation to play likeable flawed characters (he easily upstages
Russell Crowe in Gladiator as the "evil" Commodus), and Paquin has added surprising depth to her characters since her debut in The Piano. They are the main reason to check this film out.
Many will absolutely hate the content of the film, which reportedly inspired one woman at Sundance 2003 to fling a water bottle at the screen. Buffalo Soldiers paints the American military as failed peacekeepers, where only a few entrepreneurial types (like Elwood) gain from the experience. Decidedly dark, Jordan's portrait reveals a bloated military bureaucracy that blindly plots along, attempting to cover its embarrassments and blunders with little regard for the locals or its own personnel. It's a landscape that's been covered before with much more subtlety and humor, but the individual actors deliver the goods as well as they can. Due to its overt political implications, Buffalo Soldiers isn't destined to screen very long or very wide, but it's worth a rental just to watch Harris, Paquin, and Phoenix transform the mundane script to something memorable.