Buffalo Soldiers

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 03/01/04 15:19:28

"A promising film kept down by bad timing and bad choices"
3 stars (Just Average)

It's uncertain what kind of context this film is trying to evoke with a title like BUFFALO SOLDIERS (A term usually describing post-Civil War African-American soldiers, and a title that has already been used several times in movies depicting the same). Perhaps it is a reference to the disenfranchised soldiers that exist in any army, the ones who are relegated to a regimen of the mundane by discrimination, the absence of a war or any actual fighting, or both.

Buffalo Soliders is set in Germany during the cold war period of the late Eighties, around the time that the Berlin wall fell. It is portrayed as a time of general malaise and discontent among the troops, who have nothing better to fill their days with than drugs and scams.

Joaquin Phoenix ably plays Ray Elwood, a staff supply clerk who has a likeable but incompetent commander named Colonel Berman (Ed Harris). Berman harbors delusions of winning a General's star, and is utterly clueless to Elwood's moonlighting. Elwood is a reluctant soldier, serving time in the military rather than jail, and sticking his fingers in far too many pies (including that of Berman's wife, played by an almost unrecognizeable Elizabeth McGovern). When he's not skimming excess military supplies off the top and selling it to local German black marketeers, he's cooking up heroin for Sargeant Saad (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), head of both the base MP's and the local drug trade (convenient, that). A militant vegetarian, Saad also enjoys extracurricular activities like beating up white boys who are stupid enough to walk through his pissing grounds at night.

Elwood and Saad have a smooth arrangement - one that is suddenly threatened by the arrival of new Top Sargeant Lee (Scott Glen), a notorious hardass who catches wind of what Elwood is up to five minutes after he's arrived on base. Lee is determined to bust everyone involved at any cost, and takes an instant dislike to Elwood and his crew. It doesn't help matters any that Elwood begins dating Lee's daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin). He does it just to mess with Lee at first, but predictably enough begins to have feelings for her.

Buffalo Soldiers has several great moments of dark comedy, some strong performances, and noteworthy directing. Unfortunately, it also tries to keep too many plates spinning. The relationship between Elwood and Robyn lacks chemistry, while Lee comes off as just another stereotypical gung-ho lifer who loves killing and misses the playgrounds of Vietnam. There is more than one scene of death and destruction that are played off for laughs, and yet never result in any visible consequences for the parties involved. It is, in fact, this lack of consequence that severely hurts the credibility of the film. No matter how many people die or how many things get blown up, the army simply issues a blanket cover story, if any follow-through is given at all. Most disappointing is the tacked-on happy ending that negates the purpose of everything leading up to that point.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS aims to be a parable of man's ultimately self-destructive nature, and at times it succeeds. Unfortunately, it pulls punches at exactly the times that it should be hitting the hardest. The film's direct-to-video dumping could be blamed on post 9-11 backlash, where any negative view of the military was percieved as unpatriotic by the same knee-jerk jabbering sheeple who are now launching a McCarthyistic witch hunt over Janet Jackson's nipple and the use of the word "nigger" by one of Howard Stern's callers. Or maybe the film just wasn't that great to begin with.

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