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"Buffalo Soldiers" Movie Review
Long Delayed But Worth the Wait

Ed Harris and Joaquin Phoenix in "Buffalo Soldiers."
©2003 Miramax Films - All Rights Reserved

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Based on the novel “Buffalo Soldiers” by Robert O'Connor, writer/director Gregor Jordan has crafted a slick, sophisticated, dark satire centering on a group of misfit military men. Bearing no resemblance to the honored group of African-American soldiers who first earned the title 'Buffalo Soldiers,' this controversial movie dares to show the American military in an unflattering light.

“Buffalo Soldiers” focuses on a group of bored soldiers stationed in Germany during the late 1980s. The movie shows what could/does happen during extended periods of peacetime, when soldiers who are trained for war have nothing better to kill than time. There's no rallying around the flag in the name of honor and glory for members of this military unit. These men did not volunteer to serve their country. Their choice to serve was a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils: go to jail or fight for their country.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Specialist Ray Elwood, the ringleader/guy-who-can-get-you-anything-for-a-price (sort of a deviant version of “M.A.S.H.'s” Radar O'Reilly). Dealing in black market goods and illegal drugs, Ray keeps his fellow soldiers and the local townspeople supplied while making a handsome profit for himself and his good buddies. All this illicit activity is done under the not-so-watchful eyes of Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), a good man with no visible leadership skills.

Ray's happy universe is turned on end with the arrival of a new big dog, Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn). Lee gets assigned to Ray's unit right after Ray gets his hands on a huge supply of weaponry worth millions on the black market. Lee's a real bad-ass, gung-ho military man who immediately despises Ray. At first Ray figures he can work around the new Sergeant, but when that doesn't happen, he goes on the attack, dating Lee's daughter (Anna Paquin) and maneuvering behind the scenes to undermine Lee's authority. When both men realize neither will back down, the escalating tension between the two leads to a no-holds barred showdown. What should be a duel between right and wrong doesn't play out that black and white. In the gray area lies the truth of the struggle: two men vying for control and leadership. Both men are obviously flawed; both men have lost perspective on the reality of rule-based systems. In the end there is no hero. No one gets saved and no one escapes unscathed.

“Buffalo Soldiers” features an eclectic mix of actors who shine in their roles. There isn't a single actor who doesn't do a great job. Joaquin Phoenix's Ray is a fascinating mix of devilish boy-next-door meets 'lord of the underworld.' Ed Harris does a superb job of playing against type as the intellectually hampered milquetoast, Colonel Berman. Scott Glenn infuses the role of the foil with intelligence and a caustic wit, fleshing out a character who could have easily been played as a one-dimensional caricature of a career military man.

The only thing that detracts from “Buffalo Soldiers” is the hypocritical double standard being applied to the film. For decades movies have raked political figures over the coals, made the President of the U.S. look like a bumbling buffoon, featured police officers and other figures of authority as corruptible, and shown noted historical heroes in the most unflattering fictional situations. Yet Post-9/11, telling a story about drug use and criminal acts by military personnel is strictly taboo and viewed as nearly treasonous. Why isn't it okay to focus a derisive story in a military setting? In my opinion, playing it safe and being politically correct is not the purpose of art. Delays and limited releases are a form of censorship, and censorship has no place in movie theaters. And no organization, including the military, should be classified as a subject matter exempt from examination. Moviegoers should be given the chance to like/dislike the movie based on its own merits, not on whether or not it may be viewed as insulting to the military.


“Buffalo Soldiers” was directed by Gregor Jordan and is rated R for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality.

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