Buffalo Soldiers Movie Review
A dark comedy about "soldiers with nothing to kill except time" -- convicted felons, junkies and high school dropouts serving in West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall -- "Buffalo Soldiers" has designs on being a incisive satire somewhere between "M*A*S*H," "Catch-22" and "Dr. Strangelove."
But in its cheeky skewering of the U.S. military (which saw the movie much delayed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent hawkish patriotism) its provocative ambitions are dragged down by characters as cartoonish as those in lowbrow in-the-army-now laffers like "Stripes" or "Private Benjamin."
Our anti-hero is a battalion clerk named Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) who is serving his country to avoid serving time. Being of a criminal mind, he's found his access to base goods and equipment a lucrative source of extra income on the East-West black market and he's got his fingers in everything from Mop 'n' Glo to guns and drugs to the base commander's bitter, frustrated wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
But unlike Elwood -- who is wily and well developed as a low-class, low-profile schemer who has fallen into a high-risk, high-profit calling -- the rest of the cast lack polished personalities to work with. Director Gregor Jordan surrounds this con man with two-dimensional personalities that present him little challenge.
Ed Harris is the base's incompetent commander who trusts Elwood blindly while preoccupied with making a superficial impression on visiting brass in the hopes of winning an undeserved promotion. Elwood's new bunkmate (Gabriel Mann) is a bully-magnet cliché of a nervous nerd private who resists getting mixed up in the illegal activity, then has an unexplained (at least until a last-reel twist) change of heart. And the base's new "Top Sergeant" (Scott Glenn), who becomes instinctively savvy to Elwood's dirty dealings, is a hard-nosed, one-tracked personality determined to catch our guy red-handed and make his life hell in the mean time.
Despite the casting of some great actors, none of these characters (or half a dozen others) has any complexity to speak of -- and as Elwood gets in well over his head in a big, dangerous heroin deal that becomes the crux of the plot, the film's ironic, deprecating implication that its events aren't too far from reality lacks acerbic resonance as a result.
The wicked sense of humor that underscores "Buffalo Soldiers" (the title has nothing to do with the 19th century Black army regiments of the same name) can be enjoyably dark, as in the ruthless tit-for-tat rivalry that forms between Top and Elwood. When the crooked clerk takes Top's teenage daughter (the preternaturally, naively seductive Anna Paquin) out on a date, the next morning he finds himself ordered onto a firing range where his ill-gotten Mercedes is being used for target practice.
But sometimes that same humor turns ugly (accidental deaths are played for malicious laughs), and the movie is ironically at its flattest when Jordan thinks he's at his sharpest and most clever.
The problem isn't that "Buffalo Soldiers" is inconsistent. It's that the movie's derision is missing the focus and conviction a good socio-political military lampooning needs to make its point clear.