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BUFFALO SOLDIERS

2001, dir. Gregor Jordan
98 min. Rated R.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, Scott Glenn.

Review by Noel Wood

You know, I don't ask for much, but if you're going to title a movie BUFFALO SOLDIERS, you can at least humor me and play the Bob Marley song at least once during the duration of the film. Just once. Because lord knows everyone gets the goddamn song stuck in their head as soon as they hear the title. Similairly, every time I see a trailer for that new Jack Nicholson movie SOMETHINGS'S GOTTA GIVE I start uncontrollably reciting lines from Drowning Pool's "Let the Bodies hit the Floor". At least throw us a bone now and then and play the songs, people.

But that being said, I wasn't even supposed to see BUFFALO SOLDIERS. I mean, it wasn't like I was opposed to seeing it, but on the night that I got to see it at Georgia State University's Cinefest, the intended viewing was the They Might Be Giants documentary GIGANTIC. I left work early and walked a good mile and a half in freezing weather just to find out the theater wasn't able to procure a copy of the film. When we found out that it wasn't playing, we were treated to a free screening of BUFFALO SOLDIERS. We even got half-price concessions out of the deal. So yeah, it worked out pretty good for us anyway.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS was initially supposed to be released shortly after that day where people started getting oversensitive about everything in September of 2001. Like a few other films (most notably Barry Sonnenfeld's BIG TROUBLE, which contained a subplot involving a bomb being smuggled aboard a plane) it was allegedly "too controversial" to be released until Miramax grew a sack, which apparently was in the summer of 2003, and under a very limited guise at that. I had been interested in seeing it, and now that I finally had the chance, I'm still not sure exactly what the big deal was.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze as corrupt American soldiers in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm who plan to steal a whole lot of gold and make a fortune - wait, scratch that. Wrong movie. There are a lot of similarities to David O. Russell's 1999 film THREE KINGS, which was far superior in my opinion. BUFFALO SOLDIERS actually takes place a on a West German army base a couple of years earlier (and I do mean a couple; 1989 in fact) and not during a time of war. Joaquin Phoenix stars Ray Elwood, who was given the choice of either spending six months serving time in prison or three years serving his country. His entire unit are all criminals, in fact. Ray's figured out how to make the best out of his situation, however. He's making a killing selling military surplus on the black market, morphing some Mop N' Glo into a brand new Mercedes Benz. He's turning medical grade morphine into tar heroin and keeping all of the junkies on base in good spirits. Oh yeah, and not only is in he tight with the Commanding Officer, he's also sleeping with his wife. But just when he thinks he's got it all figured out, a new authority, Sgt. Lee, steps in and declares it his mission to make Elwood's life a living hell.

Sgt. Lee quickly sends his goons in to search Ray's quarters, ordering that he keep them to military standards rather than the college dorm-like conditions that he currently has. He also assigns Ray a roommate. The real kicker is when Sgt. Lee has his batallion destroy Ray's prized piece of German automotive engineering. Along the way, Ray decides that it would be a good idea to try and date Sgt. Lee's daughter, Robyn. Somehow, though, the unthinkable begins to happen, and he starts to fall for her. Meanwhile, the biggest score of his life has fallen into his lap, and he has to somehow get away with ten times the debauchery he's been able to pass under the old administration's nose.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS, much like THREE KINGS, is essentially a comedy. Some of the situations are so far-fetched you'd think they came from a bizarro version of STRIPES. At one point, tank full of smack-addled soldiers goes on a tear through a German villa, in a scene that's played parctically as slapstick. The overall tone ranges from lighthearted to dead serious, leading up to a climax that is so over-the-top you'd think you were watching the less-chipper sequel to SGT. BILKO. This is definitely one of the film's plusses, in that it never takes itself too seriously. I think this is part of why I don't understand the controvery that surrounded it. I mean, if people really think this is some sort of glaring criticism of men in uniform, as was the fear at the time the film was first shown on the festival circuit in the fall of 2001, then they need some help.

I enjoyed BUFFALO SOLDIERS. It kept me entertained for its 100-or-so minute run. That being said, the film is so full of holes that you'd think it was the Mercedes Benz that Ray's unit fires upon with their machine guns. Too much goes unexplained or without conclusion. Is there really a reason for Ray to be sleeping with his CO's wife, Mrs. Berman? All it seems to do is distract from both Ray's and her character. Is there a reason that Robyn's character has a hideous scar on her abdomen? If it were intended to show a certain conflict between her and her father, then the story behind it needed to be a little less innocent. Either way, it's pretty redundant to begin with. And for that matter, where was her mother?

While the "getting there" part of the situation that leads to Ray and his cohorts obtaining a truckload of military contraband, was all of the grandeur necessary just to lead to the climactic scene? For that matter (and yes, to spoil some plot points for you here) the big finale scene's existence is flawed in so many ways to begin with. First off, there was absolutely no reason that Ray's team needed to cook all of that heroin at one time. There was no time constraints on it, and it was foolish of them to try and pull off something on such a grand scale with them being watched the way they were. On top of that, Ray's been doing this way too long to be stupid enough to let a guy he's known for only a couple of weeks in on the situation, as he does by allowing his roommate Knoll to be a trusted partner in the whole ordeal. Oh, and plot twists for the sake of having plot twists have never been high on my list of pros. I'm just sayin'.

So yeah, the film really has some 'splaining to do. But in its defense, if you treat it like a comedy, as it is for the most part, these flaws can be overlooked in a way. It's not too terribly distracting from the overall quality of the film, but I did have some qualms with the way some of it happened. Your mileage may vary.

You can chalk up some high marks for a few strong performances, most notably Phoenix in the lead. Joaquin has proven he's a versatle star, and this role is more or less tailor-made for him. Ed Harris is terrific here, playing against type as Col. Berman, a soft-spoken and forgiving sort who is the last man you'd expect to be in charge of a bunch of convicts. Scott Glenn is always welcomed in a movie that doesn't air first on basic cable, and turns in one of his best performances since SILENCE OF THE LAMBS here as Sgt. Lee. Elizabeth McGovern manages to look like a recovering heroin addict, but does a decent enough job as Mrs. Berman. Anna Paquin, however, still hasn't quite learned that fading in and out of southern accent isn't necessary for many roles, much less all of the ones she plays (I think it's called the Juliette Lewis method of acting.)

And even without the Bob Marley track in place, the film's got a nice soundtrack on board. There are some classic hip-hop tunes that punctuate the time period perfectly. From what people who served in Europe during this period have stated, the film captures the feel of that enviroment perfectly, particularly the way World Events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall are portrayed.

I can't exactly endorse BUFFALO SOLDIERS as the monumental and breathtaking piece of controversial and groundbreaking cinema that some would have you believe it is. On the other hand, it wasn't too offensive as a movie, and was definitely worth the price I paid to see it (hell, I might have even paid to see it had I been forced to.) Just don't go in thinking about that Bob Marley song, because chances are, you'll never get it out of your head.

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