BUFFALO SOLDIERS(director: Gregor Jordan; screenwriter: Based on Robert O’Connor’s novel/Eric Weiss/Nora Maccoby; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Lee Smith; music: David Holmes; cast: Ed Harris (Col. Berman), Scott Glenn (Sgt. Lee), Joaquin Phoenix (Ray Elwood), Anna Paquin (Robyn Lee), Elizabeth McGovern (Mrs. Berman), Michael Pena (Garcia), Leon Robinson (Stoney), Dean Stockwell (Gen. Lancaster), Gabriel Mann (Knoll), Michael Pena (Garcia), Sheik Mahumd-Bey (Sgt. Saad), Haluk Bilginer (The Turk), Brian Delate (Colonel Marshall); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Rainer Grupe/Ariane Moody; Miramax Films; 2001-United States/United Kingdom/Germany)
“The storyline becomes too idiotic and lacking enough funny or relevant moments to fly as a cutting edge satire.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An outrageous black comedy about the deficiencies of the peacetime army, a view that is not in favor since 9/11. It’s a film that is so daffy and out of touch with itself, that it is mocking everything about the military but loses track of why it is doing so. It’s based on Robert O’Connor’s 1993 novel and the screenplay is by Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby. Australian director Gregor Jordan captures the cynical tone of the novel, but the storyline becomes too idiotic and lacking enough funny or relevant moments to fly as a cutting edge satire.
Buffalo Soldiers is set on the Theodore Roosevelt Army Base in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1989, just about when the Berlin Wall was to fall. The soldiers depicted are in the U.S. Army’s 317th Supply Battalion and have nothing to do but kill time. Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is the shrewd company clerk and enterprisingly runs a profitable black market operation (dealing heroin and stolen Army supplies) along with his muscle man Stoney (Leon Robinson) and his Rolex wearing ally Garcia (Michael Pena). In a smug voiceover Elwood says he joined only because the judge threatened him otherwise with a jail sentence for auto theft, and he goes on to say that he loves three things about Germany: “his Mercedes Benz, no speed limit on the Autobahn, and there’s a black market for anything he can get his hands on.” Most of the company is made up of ex-felons and high school dropouts, as the army has trouble filling quotas since the draft ended and ends up with a bunch of misfits who are not even aware of the history of why they are stationed in Germany. Elwood’s company commander, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), is an ambitious, dim-witted, clueless, incompetent, whom Elwood easily fools and gets away with anything– including servicing his aggressive wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
One of the measured themes is that Elwood and his cohorts are inundated with slogans everywhere on the base, as they in fact live up to the much advertised slogan “Be All You Can Be” and become all they can be through their successful black market operation. They now apply the new tagline ”Steal All That You Can Steal.” The other measured theme is about a dream Elwood keeps having about falling and crashing, as he develops a phobia about heights. Of course, he will be tested about this in a contrived melodramatic way before the film concludes.
Things suddenly change when a soldier cracks his head open accidentally and dies during an improvised indoor touch football game and his autopsy comes back with a report that he has multiple illegal drugs in his system. This brings in a new Top Sergeant, the no-nonsense killing machine Vietnam veteran Robert K. Lee (Scott Glenn), who won’t go along with Elwood’s games and won’t be bribed. But the Top Sergeant conveniently has a gorgeous single daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) on the base, and Elwood dates her to get back at the sergeant. This plan backfires as far as sticking it to the Top Sergeant, but it moves him closer with the flighty Robyn as he falls in love with her.
When the totally unethical Elwood and his cohorts stumble upon two supply trucks full of grenade launchers, machine guns and missiles, he pays no attention to the dead drivers who were felled by a mysterious gas station explosion in the area. Instead Elwood dreams of becoming rich as he trades the guns on the black market for 30 kilos of heroin with his vicious heroin supplier in town, the Turk. As things go down in a more violent way than Elwood could foresee and as the body count mounts and everybody’s schemes keep getting heavier, Elwood’s playful rogue character loses its purpose and Buffalo Soldiers loses its M*A*S*H-like comedy pitch. It all descends into an absurd tale of near apocalyptic pretensions. The Top Sergeant cunningly orchestrates Elwood’s fall and the violent head MP, the black Sgt. Saad (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), makes a play for Elwood’s heroin operation that gets cooked up out of all proportions and brings about a racial fight over turf.
Buffalo Soldiers—which premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival two days before September 11—has been hidden away since by Miramax. Released on DVD in 2003, with Bush’s questionable military occupation of Iraq turning more and more people off, perhaps Buffalo Soldiers can now be viewed as the post-Vietnam military comedy it was intended. But it still has too much of a smirk on its kisser and its anti-hero just doesn’t measure up to the lovable rogue and anti-establishment guy who can wow even this new disillusioned post-Iraqi war audience into thinking Elwood’s not such a bad guy after all. The film is just not that well made or acted or conceived to fall in line with other goofy takes on the military. I’m thinking of military satires such as Mike Nichols’s ”Catch-22,” Robert Altman’s ”M*A*S*H” and David O Russell’s “Three Kings.”
REVIEWED ON 2/18/2003 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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