Buffalo Soldiers (United States/United Kingdom/Germany, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the summer of 2003, Miramax Films is courting controversy. First, with the release of The Magdalene Sisters, the distributor was accused of being anti-Catholic. Now, with the release of Buffalo Soldiers, the charge is one of being unpatriotic. It's easier to understand the former indictment than the latter one. The Magdalene Sisters is a good movie, but it's not hard to see why some Catholics would be offended by it. Buffalo Soldiers, however, is a dark satire in the same vein as M*A*S*H and Dr. Strangelove, and, just because it offers a negative portrayal of the U.S. military circa 1990, it's hardly fair or reasonable to label it as "anti-American."

Buffalo Soldiers had its world premiere on September 7, 2001, when the international political landscape was different. Aside from occasional, small skirmishes like the Gulf War and the invasion of Grenada, the United States' military had not seen action since Vietnam. This movie takes place at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Cold War was coming to an end. The events center around a group of American soldiers on duty in West Germany, who have little more to do than kill time. Specialist Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is the local king of the black market. He has the slow-witted base commander, Col. Berman (Ed Harris), wrapped around his finger, and he can get away with anything he wants - including having sex with Berman's wife (Elizabeth McGovern). There are three things Elwood loves about Germany: his car, the lack of a speed limit on the Autobahn, and "a black market for anything [he] can get [his] hands on." Along with his cohorts, Garcia (Michael Pena) and Stoney (Leon Robinson), he comes upon a cache of abandoned weapons that he sees as his ticket to wealth. But there's a problem - the new Top Sergeant, the no-nonsense Robert K. Lee (Scott Glenn), won't play ball and won't take a bribe. So Elwood has to find away around him - and what better way than by dating his daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin)? The plan, of course, blows up in his face - but irony steps in to save the day.

Buffalo Soldiers is not intended to be an expose of how American soldiers spent their days and hours during peacetime, nor is it intended to be an attack on the U.S. military. It's not a cautionary tale or a morality play. Instead, it's a biting, black satire that takes full advantage of the absurdity of the situation. Without the draft, many of the people stuck in Germany were there as an alterative to spending time in jail. The unit depicted in Buffalo Soldiers isn't made up of gung-ho heroes, but of men whose lives are all about finding distractions.

Elwood thinks of himself as a tough guy - someone who is polished on the outside, but hard on the inside. He thinks he can play with a badass like Lee, until the sergeant shows him what it means to be in the "big leagues." Elwood also makes the mistake of falling for Robyn. Initially, she's meant to be a diversion and a way of getting back at her father. However, when he develops feelings for her, the situation becomes complicated. As Elwood's life spins out of control, so does everything happening at the base, and across Germany. The wall isn't all that's coming down.

The movie features a number of nice performances, but few standouts. Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin, and Ed Harris do solid jobs bringing their characters to life. Of the three, Harris gives the most interesting portrayal, since he's going against type. We're used to see the actor playing tough, confident men ("Failure is not an option!"). But Berman is weak, indecisive, and incompetent. Scott Glenn, who hasn't been in much lately, brings real fire and brimstone to his work as Lee. Glenn's intensity is such that Lee becomes a very scary individual. He's not someone I'd want to cross, even for Anna Paquin.

Buffalo Soldiers represents a nice slice-of-life movie about some of the things that may or may not have happened 15 years ago in Western Europe. Certainly, black marketeering has always gone hand-in-hand with the military, and it's easy to see how a group of largely uneducated men could find allure in making a quick buck, both to line their pockets and to alleviate the boredom. Director Gregor Jordan sees Buffalo Soldiers as a comedy, and it comes across as such. The movie is frequently funny, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. It's an enjoyable and occasionally thought-provoking motion picture whose viewership should not be diminished by the unfortunate and inaccurate "anti-American" label.

Buffalo Soldiers (United States/United Kingdom/Germany, 2001)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 2003-08-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1