(released August 2003)
MPAA Rating: R
Reviewed by H. W. Moss
Viewers should probably take "Buffalo Soldiers," a film saddled with a confusing name since the term usually implies 19th century African American cavalry and infantry, with a very large handful of salt.
Taking salt should make it clear the movie is a cynical and probably exaggerated take on a burgeoning underground black market economy with a high volume of hard drug traffic inside the U. S. Army. If you don't take the salt, you may come to the incorrect conclusion that morphine addiction and theft of government property on a massive scale is not only common, they are fostered by the culture found on bases around the world and the hierarchy of command within the military inadvertently perpetuates these crimes.
Come to think of it, that is almost exactly what Joseph Heller was driving at in "Catch-22" to which "Buffalo" owes a huge debt of gratitude. They share the same wry, ironic gallows humor that earned
The story takes place on an American base in Stuttgart, West Germany, the beating heart of Cold War Europe during the months leading up to the fall of the Wall in 1989. Seems the volunteer army had no volunteers so Elwood was given a choice by a judge: time in prison or three years in the military. Making the most of what to him is a bad situation, he is proud of the parallel career he created although "prison would have been a hellova lot safer," he remarks.
Elwood runs a drug operation on the base, selling everything from cocaine to speed, and is the chemist who personally cooks the morphine and turns it into heroine. He also steals the Army blind and is proud there is a "black market for anything I can get my hands on."
All is going well until a new "Top," Master Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn), shows up and starts making waves. Lee questions a soldier about how he can afford a Rolex, cleans out Elwood's non-regulation quarters and assigns him a roommate.
About this time Elwood discovers the Top has a sexy daughter, played with a delightful combination of dangerous charm tempered with intelligence by Anna Paquin, whom he courts in order to get even with dad. This a bad idea and ultimately results in the conflict of wills that goes waaaaaay beyond the bounds of propriety you expect in This Man's Army.
Phoenix is truly an actor at work in this film. He imbues Elwood with a thinking person's drifting thought process, a far away stare he conjures up at odd moments while everyone else is lost in the ozone or involved in a sporting event. Contemplative, distant, separate from the others, Elwood is smarter but he is also too smart for his own good. He has become bored with everything including his high stakes business which explains why he strikes back at the first real challenge that comes along. He is also basically an honest person doing dishonest work, so when he's asked he tells the truth: he's dating her to get at her father. Funny thing, she would like to as well and a bond is formed.
"Buffalo Soldiers" earns its MPAA rating of "R" for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality. However, there ought to be a mitigating circumstances category entitled "Black Humor" into which exemptions such as "Buffalo" can be placed. A good example is when the soldiers ask one another where West Berlin is, anyway? Then they go back and forth on which one they're in, East or West? The irony is that many Americans did not know and continue to be just as foggy on the idea. That there was a major American presence, a stronghold even, inside the Soviet Bloc and the only way to get there was by air or driving through the rest of a country which was in Russian controlled hands astounds many even today.
Death is part of life, but in "Buffalo," as in "Catch-22," it can come suddenly and from the simplest, most innocuous act. In the opening scene the soldiers hold an impromptu football game inside a recreation room. One guy goes for a pass, falls and hits his head against the corner of a table. Everyone argues over the play, no one notices a player is down until Elwood casually gets up, walks over to the body and examines it.
In another scene a tank crew is completely drugged-out, and we're talking using a needle inside the cockpit, not just smoking dope or pill popping. The driver mows down a gas station and two soldiers who have stopped to help are incinerated in the ensuing blast. The tank and crew is unscathed, but the charcoal bodies are vividly on display.
There is no tragedy, we are not allowed to lament the loss, nor do the characters give a particular damn as they go about their business absolutely unfazed by the incredible violence surrounding them.
Every scene is played straight and you almost do not know when to laugh, but director Gregor Jordan turns many of them into a jokey kind of violence that borders on the absurd. That goes a long way toward making the story more than palatable, it makes "Buffalo Soldiers" quite entertaining.
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