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BUFFALO SOLDIERS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Gabriel Mann, Leon Robinson, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth McGovern
Director: Gregor Jordan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: January 13, 2004

“Three things I love about Germany: my Mercedes-Benz, no speed limit on the Autobahn, and a black market for anything I can get my hands on.”

Film ***1/2

Rarely has there been such a noteworthy film that has had the most unfortunate case of being ready for release at the wrong time. Actually, make that wrong TIMES. Buffalo Soldiers, a military comedy that very much represents the same level of dark humor that made films such as MASH and Three Kings so unique and masterful, endured such a dilemma ever since it first premiered back at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, which happened to be three days prior to 9/11. From that point on, I think it’s safe to assume that Miramax was conscious-heavy about releasing such a film, especially in the waking period of the war with Iraq.

The film finally got a limited release late last summer after having its release delayed a couple of times. Now that it has hit DVD, everybody can finally see it for what it is. This is a fast, funny and occasionally intense account of soldiers who aren’t exactly trying to “be all that they can be”. The story centers in on an army unit stationed in West Germany in 1989, a setting which issues one major benefit for the film should anyone feel the need to label it controversial.

These troops are only fighting a war with one exact enemy; that of pure boredom. The Cold War is of course winding down at this point, and the historic day when the Berlin Wall will crumble isn’t too far away. It goes without saying that these enlisters need something to past the time, no matter how far and how criminal their maneuvers are.

Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a company clerk who serves as a part time pusher man for anything he can get his hands on and sell to anyone interested. He is only in uniform because he was given a choice by a judge after being busted for grand theft auto; either serve a year working for Uncle Sam, or spend six months in jail. He may want to leave his criminal past behind, but when you’ve got no war going on and nothing to do, what can you do? Even though he and the others in his unit are trained to be honorary defenders of their country, they are in a climate that forces them to do nothing except find distractions.

Elwood is quite the slick mover and shaker, as he is able to keep the commander of the base, Col. Berman (Ed Harris), completely wrapped around his finger. To illustrate how well he has the Colonel wrapped, Elwood is able to convince him that a fellow soldier in the unit died honorably, when in fact he was killed in during a game of indoor football. The soldier also happened to be a junkie, something that won’t be included in the letter Elwood has personally written to the soldier’s parents.

Engaging in secret dealings of all kinds of products to Mop & Glo to that of pure heroin, which is sold within the base if you can believe that, Elwood has quite a lot going for him. However, his fun is soon put to crucial halt upon the arrival of the new company top sergeant, Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), who is the kind no one in their right mind should ever screw with. Of course, Elwood can’t resist the urge to do so, especially when he catches a glimpse of Lee’s free-spirited daughter (Anna Paquin).

To be truthfully honest, I’m almost embarrassed why I got such a big kick out of this movie. There’s one scene early in the film where the crew of a tank, stoned out of their minds, begin training maneuvers. Not only do they manage to steer the tank away from the training field, but they do nothing short of virtually destroying a nearby village, squashing a beetle car, all before causing a gas station explosion, causing the death of two observing soldiers. I’ve watched the movie about three times and laughed loudly at the scene on each viewing, and doing so while feeling slightly uncomfortable. I suppose this sort of effect was intended.

The film’s climax provides an unexpected switch of gears. As a drug deal among the soldiers leads to exchange of gunfire between the soldiers and military police, Lee issues a brutal personal war against Elwood. It ends with a pivotal sequence, as a character makes a risky move, one that resembles a fearful dream he has throughout the movie. It’s a strong and superb finish, highlighted by an incredible music score by David Holmes.

To sum it up, Buffalo Soldiers is by no means a patriotic film, but it is quite a bold and original piece. The top cast of actors are full game. Joaquin Phoenix has never been more engaging and witty. While the idea of the movie may strike some the wrong way, there’s no denying the endless wit and sting it delivers. Films that can be both funny and intense are hard to come by, which makes this all the more inventive.

Video ****

Miramax delivers a most outstanding and all together crisply sharp anamorphic presentation. The film has a good deal of individual scenes, with shots that have a marvelous visual impact, something that was mostly well handled in the transfer. Colors all appear natural as can be, with no visual distortions to account for on record.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix provided delivers exceedingly well. Upon first watching the movie, I had no idea what I was in for in terms of what would make for a strong playback, which was the case in many scenes such as the eye-catching opening of the movie, the hilarious tank sequence, and the big climax which definitely provides a good case of boom. Dialogue is heard perfectly, and the music score by David Holmes is given strong attention.

Features ***

Though it may not seem like much, I was mostly pleased how Miramax handled the extras. Included is a commentary track with director Gregor Jordan, a brief featurette titled “Beyond the Iron Curtain”, and the always intriguing “Anatomy of a Scene” segment. Lastly, there are bonus trailers including ones for Open Range and My Boss’s Daughter.

Summary:

Buffalo Soldiers is one of last year’s most overlooked releases, though in the long run it may have had no choice. There is clearly no controversy necessary, as this is a thoroughly edgy, funny and intense tale of soldiers in a  different time and place. A bold and engaging film that’s right up there with the likes of MASH, Three Kings, and Catch 22.