The setting is the late 1980s, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At a lone American army outpost in Germany, drugs, women and material possessions are rampant among the troops, who are at loose ends due to the lack of combat. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is an army specialist under the command of Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris, in a refreshingly silly performance), but Elwood runs
the show behind the scenes. Retrieving and cooking the drugs sold to his fellow
officers, along with other black market dealings, Elwood is flush with cash and
time, a deadly combo for a trained soldier. When a new officer, Sgt. Robert Lee
(Scott Glenn), arrives on base, he makes it his personal mission to take away
all the amenities that Elwood enjoys. This sets off a war between the two that
threatens the corrupt framework of the base, and the heart of Lee's own daughter
(Anna Paquin), for whom Elwood has feelings.
"Buffalo Soldiers" (IMDb listing)
has had an incredible time getting to theaters. Purchased at
the 2001 Toronto Film Festival by Miramax Films, the film was quickly shelved
when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in New York. Fearful of director Gregor
Jordan's rather timely view of trained soldiers with no enemies left to fight
but themselves, the picture was left to gather dust for a year. Set for release
in 2002, the movie was pulled again when tensions heated up in the Middle
East. Now, almost three years after the picture was completed, it is finally
seeing the light of day. This is a good thing for once, as delayed films are
usually held for a good reason. "Buffalo" bucks that trend with its roaring
comedy and precise satire of the state of dormant military personal.
I could see audiences less inclined to go with Gregor Jordan's rather satiric
vision becoming wholly upset with the film. While it never takes on the guise of
a sinister mockumentary of Army politics, Jordan does tap dance on the line
between going for laughs and pointing an accusatory finger at the fragmentary
behavior of American armed forces. I err on the side of comedy, simply because
"Buffalo" has moments as outlandish as anything you've seen in "Sgt. Bilko" or
"Stripes." Jordan has crafted a sly comedy that contains belly laughs along with
its political dissections. Some of Jordan's better comedic highlights feature a
tank commanded by drug addicts who get lost from their battalion and roam the
German countryside destroying everything in their path. Or Harris' dim Col.
Berman, who tries to impress his superiors with tales of an ancestral Civil War
hero who was actually anything but.
Eventually the darker elements of the story creep into the fold. As Elwood and
his friends uncover abandoned military trucks containing scores of untraceable
weapons, he decides to sell them on the black market, thus taking his scams to a
whole new level. Jordan tries to place a thriller/mystery spin on this subplot,
along with the increasing entanglements found in the war between Elwood and Lee.
While Jordan gets away with the change of tone, mostly due to his stylish
direction and the terrific performances from Phoenix and Glenn, "Buffalo
Soldiers" loses its unique satiric identity in the mix. This is smart comedy
that isn't well served with lethargic dramatics. Jordan regains his footing for
the comical final scene, but some of the bite has been taken out of his bark by
The lazy viewer may interpret "Buffalo Soldiers" as a direct attack on
American soldiers. Most astute viewers will be able to get past this
questionable thinking and enjoy the film on its own merits. The picture deserves
this kind of respect.
Filmfodder Grade: A-