December 7, 2002
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth McGovern, Gabriel Mann, Leon, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Michael Pena, Glenn Fitzgerald, Brian Delate, David Crow, Amani Gethers, Martin Cole, ,
Buffalo Soldiers (2001) had the misfortune of being scheduled to come out in theatres the day after 9/11. Miramax, understandably nervous about releasing a black comedy about the U.S. Army so close after such a devastating event, shelved the film for two years, postponing its release another time because of the US-Iraq war. Miramax released it quietly for a limited run in select theatres and then with little fanfare on DVD. Was it worth the wait?
Ray Elwood (Phoenix) is a battalion clerk serving on a U.S. Army base in Germany in 1989. He and his fellow soldiers are, as he puts it, “fighting the dull fight. Soldiers with nothing to kill except time.” It’s an army populated by criminals and high school drop-outs. With nothing to do, Elwood passes the time by running a black market on the side, selling Mop and Glo to the locals and manufacturing heroin to sell to soldiers on the base. When he’s not pulling one over on his clueless Commanding Officer (Harris), he’s having an affair with his superior’s wife (Perkins).
Elwood’s schemes are threatened when the new First Sergeant (an appropriately ramrod stiff Scott Glenn) arrives on the scene. He’s a hardened veteran of three tours in Vietnam and is savvy to Elwood’s scams. To get back at his superior, Elwood starts dating his daughter (Paquin) and then things get really complicated.
Joaquin Phoenix is well cast as the amoral opportunist, Ray Elwood. With his devilish smirk, he brings the right amount of smarminess to the role. He also conveys intelligence in the way he carries himself. There is always something going on behind his eyes; he is always thinking and scheming as he tries to figure out all the angles.
Ed Harris is cast wonderfully against type as the hapless C.O. He refuses to play him as a simple variation of Colonel Henry Blake on M*A*S*H—he is too smart of an actor to do that. There is a sad aspect to his character—he is too nice of a guy to be in such an amoral army—that gives an added dimension.
Buffalo Soldiers is a biting military satire in the same vein as M*A*S*H (1970) and Three Kings (1999). It uses absurd situations, like a scene where stoned soldiers drive a tank off course only to run amok through a nearby town, in order to criticize the conditions of the armed forces and their abuses of power. Scenes like this start off as funny situations that end in horrific disaster as the tank crashes through two gas pumps that explode and incinerate two nearby innocent soldiers. Like M*A*S*H and Three Kings, Buffalo Soldiers sets up a joke and then turns it on its head with a shocking moment as the punchline.
However, unlike those two other films, the audience doesn’t really care about the characters in Buffalo Soldiers because there isn’t really anything about them that is likable or that makes you want to see them succeed. Ed Harris’ character is the only one that elicits any kind of sympathy and this disappears once his character exits the story. Three Kings at least had a humanistic message at its heart. Buffalo Soldiers has no heart.
Gregor Jordan contributes an audio commentary. He offers insight into how the film was made. It was actually shot on a disused army base in Germany that they found and took over for the entire production. Jordan also talks about how the film differs from the book that it was based on. He toned down the realism of the book but still based many of the situations in the film on actual fact. For example, he cites a staggering statistic: during the Cold War $85 billion worth of weapons went missing.
“Beyond the Iron Curtain: Behind the Scenes of Buffalo Soldiers” is a standard promotional featurette with interview clips with the cast and the director along with footage from the set and the movie. Unfortunately, this extra does not address the effects of 9/11 on the film’s fate or Miramax’s decision to shelve it for so long.
The excellent Sundance Channel program, “Anatomy of Scene” takes a scene from the movie and dissects the various components that make it up and analyze their effect. This is the most interesting and informative extra on the disc as one learns how many different layers, like editing and cinematography, come together to produce a scene.
Buffalo Soldiers is something of a cinematic oddity. At times, it wants to be a giddy satire of the armed forces and also a romance and a drama. However, Jordan isn’t able to tie all of these elements together in a cohesive whole. He should have committed to one of these genres and went all the way with it. Instead, what is left is a mess of a movie with no one for the audience to root for or care about.