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Buffalo Soldiers
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by Chris Parry

"The movie Miramax has been too scared to release."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Based on a novel by Robert O’Connor, Buffalo Soldiers is a feature film that suffered greatly from poor timing. Acquired by Miramax on September 10 2001, a day later it was exactly the sort of film that seems to have no place in today’s America. The second feature film from Australian director Gregor Jordan, Buffalo Soldiers is a savagely funny depiction of an out of control American military base in West Germany where the soldiers are doped-up petty thieves, the commander doesn’t know his asshole from his elbow, and nobody is subjected to any accountability at all. While Jordan’s film is very dark, very funny and very fatalistic, it seems to have been missed by many that it’s far from an attack on the American military, rather it’s the telling of a story set in another time – the time just before the Berlin wall fell, when the US had no real enemies to concern itself with. What happens when the military gets bored and nobody’s watching what the left hand is doing?

Joaquin Phoenix is great as Elwood, a company clerk who sidelines as a black marketer. He has his clueless base commander (Ed Harris) sign forms for ridiculous amounts of supplies, then sends them right out the back door in return for hot electronics, hard drugs and assorted other quasi-legal luxuries. In his spare time, Elwood and his homies cook heroin for a renegade group of MP’s who supply most of the base with chemical fun. It’s a delicate balance, keeping the heavies happy while keeping the boss clueless, but Elwood seems to have his schtick down pat. Until a new top sergeant comes to the base and starts sniffing around.

And that’s where Buffalo Soldiers comes a little unraveled. So many great movies with great characters are spoiled when an overly complex storyline takes center stage, and that’s at times the case here. Phoenix’s character is superbly drawn, his escapades well constructed and expertly depicted (a team of stoned tank drivers provide one of the highlights of the flick, both in a comedic sense and action-wise), but the task of contracting so much of the book into a feature film running time sets up too many subplots that detract from the film’s message. A love affair between Phoenix and the daughter of his new nemesis (Anna Paquin) could potentially have lent a human quality to the work, but formula interferes (enough of the ‘teenage girl with burn scars’ cliché already) and the relationship comes across as very fast, frail and insincere.

Which is not to say that Buffalo Soldiers deserves to sit on a Miramax shelf until they dump it to video. In fact, the negatives of this film are far outweighed by the positives. Jordan’s directorial style is just magic, with some of the shots being so good that they distract you from the story itself. An opening shot that rolls around a building before passing through the glass of a window into the building itself is a great piece of trickery, but it does yell ‘look what I can do’. Fair enough though, as Jordan can do a lot more with a camera than most other directors would ever try. His visual style is a film in itself, as it was in his earlier work Two Hands, which also sadly got short shrift from US distributors before having the theatrical rights bought up by Blockbuster and shelved so that the film could become a Blockbuster video exclusive.

It’s a shame that art can be bought by a company and limited to the audience in such a fashion, and even sadder that nobody does a damn thing to stop it, but if Buffalo Soldiers finds itself in a similar position people should start shouting from the rooftops to have Blockbuster and all monopolistic megaliths like it broken up.

This is a film that is up against it in the currently ridiculously patriotic and unquestioning USA. When I watched Buffalo Soldiers at a Sundance press screening I saw plenty of other critics laughing along with the film, seemingly enthused, only for them to say how much they disliked it afterwards. For these people what matters most is not pissing on the flag, not questioning the status quo. They’ll claim the characters are unlikable – but so be it. If the characters were likable, people would object to heroin traffickers being portrayed positively. They’ll say the film is dark and depressing, but how else would you portray a group of people who are either stealing, doped to the eyeballs or dealing drugs? Should Jordan have filled the screen with daisies and butterflies as the jarheads stick needles in their arm?

Finally, they’ll claim this is an attack on ‘our fighting soldiers’, which again is bogus. The point is that these weren’t fighting soldiers. They were soldiers drafted in during the waning years of the cold war, when nobody wanted to be in the army and prisoners and petty thieves were brought in to fill the numbers. This sort of thing DID happen, it’s not a tale without basis in fact, so to say that it shouldn’t be shown is to say ‘we don’t want to see any part of our history that is negative.’

9/11 happened. Deal with it. This movie isn’t about 9/11, the events of the time, the reasons it happened of anything remotely linked to such things. It’s about a dumb period of US military history when manpower at any cost was the motto of the higher ups. And if you really don’t think soldiers take drugs, take a look at the recent admission that US Air Force pilots are routinely given speed to keep them alert during long missions.

Buffalo Soldiers is a good flick that’s well-written and ultimately very worthy of a $30m box office payday. That it possibly won’t get the chance to make that payday is a bigger blow to the American Way than anything depicted on the screen. One way or another, you’ll eventually get to see it. When that time comes, give it some time of your own.

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originally posted: 01/23/03 18:06:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/02/14 Monday Morning Joaquin is great! Erskin is right though…like most movies, it needs more tit. 4 stars
12/24/06 Steve Newman Film was passable - not good, not crap 3 stars
9/26/06 Steve W Sharp satire, very tongue-in cheek. Great cast. 5 stars
2/28/04 Bill People who made this film know zip about military 1 stars
2/16/04 Samuel P. Caruthers This movie is excellent, just see it and don't read anything about it before you do. 5 stars
2/02/04 Gabriela Brilliant! Phoenix is great. 5 stars
8/29/03 Boris Brilliant! Funny, interesting, shocking. Parry's review is basically spot on. 5 stars
8/15/03 Paul Dempsey Competent direction but poorly written 3 stars
8/12/03 erskin misled on titke; good story line 4 stars
8/01/03 Edgar Wynn This movie is an affront to African-Americans 1 stars
8/01/03 ARTEMIS Fantastic movie! Very, very revealing, very sharp! 5 stars
7/30/03 Graham Ban Sgt. Bilko! It makes all soldiers look like wheeler-dealing scamps! Whine, whine... 4 stars
7/27/03 Carl Steplock A pack of hollywood left-wing radicalism LIES 1 stars
7/24/03 Shughart I was stationed in Germany in '89, it wasn't like this. Makes me look like an criminal. 1 stars
7/24/03 Tats Tells it like it was 4 stars
7/14/03 arthur rooney it sucked. insulting to armed forces. 1 stars
6/26/03 Geisha The story is great, love the characters 5 stars
5/25/03 William "Bill" McCurtis Disrespectful to the title "Buffalo Soldier" 1 stars
5/09/03 MacD Flawed but interesting, with some very funny scenes and extremely memorable characters. 4 stars
3/30/03 christy awsome 5 stars
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  25-Jul-2003 (R)
  DVD: 13-Jan-2004



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