Buffalo Soldiers

You're in the army now...GET OUT, QUICK!

Released in 2001, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 17 Jul 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Nietzsche said "Where there is peace the warlike man attacks himself", and it's this premise that provides us with the brave but flawed Buffalo Soldiers. Set in a US Army base in West Germany on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the film deals with the bored antics of opportunistic US squaddies for whom "war is hell, but peace is f**king boring". What a mantra.

The main thrust of the film concerns one particularly risky deal precipitated by some of Elwood's comrades indulging in a little H whilst taking part in a tank manoeuvre. Veering wildly off course (so far as to drive into the middle of town), the trippin' trio inadvertently kill two US Army truck drivers when they blow up a petrol station. As they trundle blindly onwards oblivious to the carnage around them, Elwood and two colleagues arrive on scene to discover the two trucks driven by the personnel contain a huge shipment of weapons. Sensing a unique opportunity, Elwood stashes the haul at a nearby missile silo until he can convince a local drug dealer to trade the munitions for a huge quantity of heroin.

Meanwhile, Elwood's antics have not gone unnoticed by new ranking officer Sgt. Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn), who takes an immediate dislike to the proceedings and initiates something of a shakedown of events. Unable to buy Lee's silence, Elwood unwisely decides to exact some measure of revenge by dating his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin). Throw in a decidedly miffed group of military policemen in competition with Elwood for dominance of the base's drug supply racket and the stage is set for some truly unruly behaviour.

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buffalo Soldiers is the timing. Initially delayed due to the heinous events of September 11th two years ago, Miramax have seen the wake of the war in Iraq as the ideal opportunity to showcase what amounts to a damning indictment of the behaviour of US troops abroad. It's difficult to imagine any of the major US studios other than Miramax having the gall to even produce such an essentially un-American picture let alone release it in the current climate, and I have to say hats off to them for displaying the cohones.

This film has nothing whatsoever redeeming to say about the behaviour of America's favourite sons, and as such provides potentially the best recruitment drive a nation's armed forces will ever see. "Join the army! Inject Heroin! Kill your fellow soldiers! Never be held responsible!". I can see the doped-out teens lining up outside their nearest enrolment office now. Obviously artistic licence has been used to imbue many of the scenarios with a suitably OTT element, but if even a tenth of this rings true then any US occupied country should be very, very afraid.

What worries me most, however, is how utterly irresponsibly Miramax seem to be pushing this as a comedy of all things, which I assure you it is not. There's nothing funny about the allegation of soldiers being drug pushers, arms dealers, or operating tanks under the influence of mind-altering psychotropic chemicals, regardless of how true it may or may not be. Still, such prudish concerns aside, Buffalo Soldiers certainly provides a good 100 minutes of reasonably solid entertainment.

Stubbornly refusing to take any obvious standpoint, Jordan opts instead for the 'hang around and observe' approach. While this is often more satisfying for an audience who prefer to make up their own minds based on personal moral stance, given the subject matter I'm afraid the more Neanderthal element of the assembled throng may have benefited better from a few more "by the way, this is bad behaviour"-type pointers. Seldom is any remorse shown by Elwood for any of his actions, even those resulting in the needless deaths of his fellow soldiers, and it's perhaps too much of a dangerous line to walk for my liking. Still, it's nice every once in a while to have a protagonist who is neither obviously the bad guy nor the good guy.

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Pheonix is engaging enough as Elwood, although he shows none of the flair he managed for Gladiator, ranking this performance closer to his decidedly mediocre turn in the abominable Signs. Similarly the rest of the cast border on but never quite reach excellent, remaining merely serviceable throughout. Paquin in particular is criminally underused with no attempt made to add depth to the relationship between her character and that of her father. I found this particularly unusual as ultimately (and how to put this without spoiling anything) she has reason to loathe Elwood by the end of the movie but remains steadfastly his sweetheart. Shame for her he's more interested in his Mercedes.

Harris is perhaps the most refreshing in his role, playing as he does quite out of type as an inept, impotent yet likeable fool of whom Elwood takes great advantage to the point of keeping his wife 'happy', if you know what I mean. Other than this the cast remain steadfastly disposable, but then given that there are few of them we should really like or have empathy for it's perhaps better to keep them shallow.

I left with the distinct impression that there's something significant missing from Buffalo Soldiers, especially given the controversial subject matter, yet I'm hard pushed to put my finger on exactly what it is. I guess perhaps it's a case of 'just for the sake of it' syndrome, as really there is no distinct message, moral stance or even point to the film. One can smell the greatness of the potential Jordan has failed to achieve, and perhaps it's this that takes much of the shine off what is otherwise a very competent and reasonably entertaining piece of cinema.

Regardless, this is a decent night at the movies, and I dare say others may well take away more from the experience than I did. I just can't shake the feeling that something is intrinsically wrong with a film where people spent so much time laughing at events I found frankly disturbing. As far as I can see, if you leave thinking this is a comedy you've surely missed the point, and the nai?vity of anyone for whom this rings true is perhaps what scares me most. This may well turn out to be one of those films that time reveals to be a work of unappreciated genius, but I rather doubt it. Still, if you like army flicks then knock yourself out.

Craig Disko has awarded this film 3 out of 5 Arbitrary Disko Units.

Gregor Jordan
Cast list:
Joaquin Phoenix (Ray Elwood)
Scott Glenn (Sgt. Robert E. Lee)
Anna Paquin (Robyn Lee)
Ed Harris (Col. Wallace Berman)