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Buffalo Soldiers

  Buffalo Soldiers
"Buffalo Soldiers" contends war is a laughing matter.

© 2001, Miramax
All Rights Reserved

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 then.

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-

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