Buffalo Soldiers Review
The makers of Buffalo Soldiers would have you believe it's a casualty of the War on Terror. Made in 2001, it was reportedly shelved by its distributors after September 11th in case its negative take on the US miltary offended the American public. Really? American moviegoers are used to seeing the armed forces dissed by films as mainstream as Born On The Fourth Of July, A Few Good Men and Three Kings. Even in movies where they aren't the bad guys, men in uniform are usually portrayed as blunderers who want to blow up Alcatraz before Nicolas Cage can save the hostages or bullies who try to kill the Hulk. Last April's Ashley Judd melodrama High Crimes accused US special forces of terrorism with no controversy at all so God knows why a black comedy exposing the drug trade on army bases should upset anyone. The recent John Travolta thriller Basic showed the same thing. I can't help wondering if Buffalo Soldiers' distributors decided that there was an audience for a controversial film that stuck two fingers up at the US Army and, lacking any real controversy, manufactured one.
The film itself is a reasonably entertaining but confused mixture of comedy, drama and violence that initially resembles a modern day Sergeant Bilko, with Joaquin Phoenix in the Phil Silvers role. He plays Ray Elwood, a cynical small time crook who chose army service over jail and has been posted as a clerk to a supply division in West Germany. The time is 1989, communism is on its way out and the men are terminally bored. Elwood exploits the situation by trading military supplies with the local gangsters for drugs, which he sells on to the corrupt miltary police who handle distribution. Base commander Wallace Berman (Ed Harris) has no idea what's going on, though newly arrived sergeant Robert E Lee (Scott Glenn) is sniffing around suspiciously. Lee has a pretty teenage daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin) and Elwood decides to put the sergeant on the back foot by dating the girl, then surprises himself by falling for her. To make matters even more complicated, Elwood has just chanced upon a mislaid weapons cache which he sees as his retirement fund.
If Buffalo Soldiers is a casualty, it's of a shaky tone which veers from light-hearted Animal House anarchy to Cheech and Chong dope farce to sincere romance to Tarantino-style violence to social criticism with little over-riding control. Maybe the model was Grosse Point Blank, George Armitage's superb 1997 film which starred John Cusack as a hitman attending his high school reunion. That film did work on many levels at the same time but it worked because it never lost sight of where it was going and because it recognised that Martin Blank was a monster with no hope of redemption. Buffalo Soldiers goes wrong by not following suit and extending its cynicism to its protaganist. It's a mistake to try and portray Elwood as a misguided innocent and take his tenderness towards Robyn seriously. The man has no qualms about dealing smack or selling arms but he feels bad about using Sgt Lee's daughter. A smarter movie would see that for the absurdity it is. The film's different ambitions sometimes cancel each other out. The exaggeration necessary for the farce means you can't take the commentary on the army seriously. Are there corruption and drug problems on US bases? More than likely. Is the military police entirely made up of bad-ass, honky-hating black gangstas? Probably not.
There are compensations. The film by Aussie director Gregor Jordan, who's since made Ned Kelly with Heath Ledger, may be a misfire but it's a very watchable one on a scene by scene basis. Only late in the day do doubts creep in and only afterwards does it fall apart. Oliver Stapleton's cinematography gives it a cold, wet, ugly look which makes a bland army base in West Germany look like the most unwelcoming spot on Earth. Joaquin Phoenix, so good in Gladiator and Signs, proves himself a first rate leading man and a star to watch. Ed Harris is excellent in an atypical role as a well-meaning officer promoted beyond his abilities, as are Elizabeth McGovern as his shrewish wife and Dean Stockwell as a jaded general but these characters are introduced, built up and then sidelined once the story gets into Tarantino territory. It's too bad because this is the material that works best. There's a great satire about the modern army here which keeps poking out from behind the lesser stuff but long before we get to the ludicrous ending, the opportunity has been lost.