Specialist Ray Elwood (Joachim Phoenix) had a choice to make - 6 months in prison or 3 years as a soldier in Uncle Sam's peacetime army. It's 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Elwood has set up a nice, cozy clerk's job for the commander of a US base in West Germany. Black marketeering, arms sales and heroine distribution are just some of Ray's favorite pastimes but it's all about to come to an end in "Buffalo Soldiers."
Australian director Gregor Jordon brought his work to Toronto in 2001 to open at the Toronto International Film Festival. That was on 10 September 2001. The next day the world had changed and the cynical, satirical "Buffalo Soldiers" - a less than flattering look into the peacetime US Army before the fall of the Wall - went into release hell. It was set to go to the big screen no fewer than five times over the past two years and, now, it finally makes its inauspicious debut.
During these politically correct times, when the US military has become a sacred cow for the nation, the release of a film that derides the Army as drug-addled, corrupt and incompetent will not be received well by the public. "Buffalo Soldiers" is that film.
In the beginning, we see through the eyes of Ray Elwood as he is dropped, like a bomb, from the belly of an airplane. He hurtles to earth at tremendous speed, then - thud! He slams into the ground. Ray's dream and fear of heights, we know, will have some bearing along the way.
Elwood is the chief clerk to the commander of the Theodore Roosevelt US Army Base, Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris). Berman is mostly concerned with getting his brigadier's star and doesn't question things like a requisition for 1000 gallons of Mop 'n' Glow - "cleanliness is next to godliness" he suggests to his subordinate, Ray. In true Ernie Bilko fashion, Elwood runs the base for his own aggrandizement, making deals with black marketers and supplying heroine to the head MP, Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey), to sell on base. A wrench is thrown into Ray's not-so-good works when Top Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives and begins snooping around. Ray exacerbates the situation when he starts dating Lee's pretty daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin).
"Buffalo Soldiers," for the first half, holds much akin to Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" and to "Catch-22." Ray, in fact, could be the grandson of the entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder (played by Jon Voight) from the latter film. There is a very funny sequence where Ray helps one of his clients, Hicks (Glenn Fitzgerald), the commander of an Abrams tank, score some smack. Next day, on maneuvers, Hicks and his crew shoot up and end up crashing through the outdoor market of a nearby town, roll over a VW Beetle and devastate a gas station before returning to the field. It is both humorous and a statement about the boredom soldiers face during peacetime.
Unfortunately, the satire ceases at about the halfway mark and the mood of the film shifts to the quasi-serious as Sergeant Lee takes on the vendetta to "get" Elwood. This vengeance-is-mine theme is mixed in with a large-scale heroine-cooking project, a drug-addled shootout and Ray's final redemption. The shift from the first half's tongue-in-cheek humor to the varied angst and drama of the second half is not a smooth transition and "Buffalo Soldiers" suffers for it - never mind the political incorrectness of making fun of our now-beloved military,
Although the film may have its share of problems, Joachim Phoenix does a fine job in owning the role of Ray Elwood. He is the only thing that maintains an arc throughout the film - the story has so many threads and starting points that it feels like a collection of episodes - kind of like watching a pastiche of "Sergeant Bilko" shows.
The makers do a fair job of presenting the boredom of a peacetime Army and the things that its members do to get by. It's the wrong movie at the wrong time in this pro-military world and "Buffalo Soldiers" is not nearly strong enough to rise above political correctness. I give it a C+.
Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix, "Signs") was given a choice of serving time or his country and so brought his criminally experienced mind to the military. "War is hell, but peace is boring," Elwood tells us from the (fictional) Theodore Roosevelt Army Base in Stuttgart where he runs a black market operation trading army supplies for heroin that he cooks up for his fellow soldiers all under the admiring, cluelessly benign eyes of Colonel Berman (Ed Harris, "The Hours") in "Buffalo Soldiers."
Australian director Gregor Jordan's ("Two Hands") film had a terrific debut at the Toronto Film Festival and was snapped up for distribution on September 10, 2001. Since that time, Miramax has been loathe to release this black satire and is now unceremoniously dumping it into theaters. While the film deserves better treatment, it is a bit of a disappointment after such a long wait.
It's near the end of the Cold War and 1989 and Elwood is dreaming of falling like a bomb from "Dr. Strangelove" except he always hits the ground in his dream. The film's dark tone is set immediately when one of the 'soldiers with nothing to kill but time' dies in a freak football accident in a rec room. Elwood takes charge, dumping the body out of a top story window in order to spin a patriotic backstory for the condolence letter he types up for Berman.
Elwood beatifically smiles away Berman's questioning of his requisition for 1000 gallons of Mop 'n' Glo, then siphons 500 gallons of it to Herman the German. He keeps his hands clean of actual drug dealing by passing the H to Sgt. Saad (Shiek Mahmud-Bey, "Flawless"), whose MPs patrol the base like an LA street gang. One day smack addict Harris (Glenn Fitzgerald, "Tully," looking like a young Daniel Day Lewis) guides his tank off course during maneuvers, crashing through a local marketplace, demolishing a car ('Oh man, we squashed a Beetle!') and wiping out a gas station with a spectacular explosion that kills two army drivers transporting weapons. Elwood arrives on the scene and immediately decides to become an arms dealer, but the incident brings the arrival of a new Top Sergeant, Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn, "The Shipping News"), who makes it his mission to bring Elwood down.
Screenwriters Eric Weiss ("Bongwater") and Nora Maccoby ("Bongwater") (adapting the book by Robert O'Connor) structure the film into acts with symbolic 'fallings.' Lee's daughter turns out to be pretty Robyn Lee (Anna Paquin, "X2") a high diver that Elwood hooks up with to needle her dad but ends up falling for. She helps him over his fear of flying for a climax that will set them both free. Jordan's dark comedy loses its humorous aspects in its final round, though, becoming a nasty battle to the death between the relentlessly driven Lee and the not usually challenged but resilient Elwood.
Phoenix is slyly engaging as the mercenary opportunist. He keeps audiences on his side even when he betrays his boss, uses women and trades U.S. weaponry for profit (it is this last act that is the most cringe-inducing in today's world, but try and put yourself in 1989 frame of mind). He's a scoundrel that you want to root for. I don't recall Ed Harris ever playing quite this type of role before, a blissfully unaware dreamer who's bungled his way into a high ranking position that positively does not suit his temperament. Glenn is less interesting, a standard issue military hard ass, but Paquin, as his daughter, spins just enough kooky wildness into Robyn to make Elwood's interest believable. Gabriel Mann ("The Life of David Gale") is artful in his presentation of the mousy Knoll, a geeky kid Lee forces Elwood to room with who makes more than one surprising move after being beaten to a pulp by Saad's bullies. Fitzgerald gives the film's out-and-out funniest performance reacting to the havoc he's wrought before smoothly slipping back into military formation with a crooned assurance that even cracks himself up. The film also features Elizabeth McGovern ("The House of Mirth") as Berman's wife who is sleeping with Elwood and Dean Stockwell ("Blue Velvet") as a general Berman is trying to impress.
"Buffalo Soldiers" rebounds with a closure that repeats its opening - a scoundrel's circle of life. It's as if Sgt. Bilko found himself in a Catch-22 after surviving a M.A.S.H. unit.
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