A lot of people are going to have problems with Buffalo Soldiers because of the timing. It was written and filmed before we went to war. Now, when it is so important to support American troops and when we all want badly to believe in the integrity and ability of our troops, it is unsettling to see a darkly satiric film about the armed services. Removed from the current context, Buffalo Soldiers could be better appreciated as a sharp and clever movie.
Buffalo Soldiers stars Joaquin Phoenix, who stole scenes from lead actors in big films like Gladiator and Signs, has finally gotten a lead role, and one that is worthy of his talents. He plays Ray Elwood, an amoral but surprisingly likeable conscript in the US Military in West Germany right before the fall of the Berlin wall. He holds a position as a battalion secretary to Commander Wallace Berman, (Ed Harris) a kind, insecure, inept, and endlessly pitiable man who is taken advantage of by everyone from Elwood to his wife, (Elizabeth McGovern) who ignores her husband and doesn’t try to hide the fact she’s sleeping with Elwood.
More out of boredom than anything else, Elwood uses his powers to run black market deals, from selling army supplies to the locals to cooking heroin for the men on the base. Top sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn, as perfect as a crisply ironed dress shirt) comes into the picture wanting to clean things up. Soon matters escalate between the two; Lee destroys Elwood’s room and sets him up with a geeky roommate (Gabriel Mann), Elwood starts dating (and soon falls for) Lee’s rebellious daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), Lee orders the men to take target practice on Elwood’s new car, and it only gets worse.
Recent war movies have centered on combat, like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. This focuses on small intersecting stories (Stoned soldiers raiding a small town in a tank and leaving two trucks of arms in Elwood’s hands, Commander Berman discovering he’s related to a Civil War general, recurring themes of falling and fire, and much, much more). Considering all the sequels and remakes that are slated for summer release, Buffalo Soldiers is a great breath of fresh air. Note that it is definitely not for all tastes; some viewers will be offended by it and others will debate over whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. It’s not surprising that this film has been fighting to get a theater release, but it is a provocative and original film that will entertain, offend, and challenge audiences, and be debated for years.
Something interesting to think about is why we as an audience like Elwood. He lies, he betrays (although he explains why) he steals, and he does it all just because he can. Perhaps he is just the most likeable character in a movie filled with unpleasant people, or maybe it’s just that he’s the only one with feelings that we can relate to, as he loves, fears, mourns, and learns to take even bigger risks, while someone like Sergeant Lee feels none of this, and Commander Berman lets people walk all over him. Maybe it’s just that Phoenix can get away with so much as he charms his way through the part, though he’s pushed hard to rise to the occasion in a flawless supporting cast that includes Paquin, Glenn, Harris, McGovern, Mann, Dean Stockwell, and Leon, who needs more good roles.
Parents should know that this film has been rated R for strong graphic violence, strong language, and drug use.
People who enjoy this film should try M*A*S*H*, Catch-22, and the more recent Three Kings. They might also like some earlier movies about soldiers who work (and work around) the system like Captain Newman, M.D..