August 29, 2011

Reader's Choice: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

Directed by Gregor Jordan. Starring Joaquin Phoenix ("Ray Elwood"), Ed Harris ("Colonel Berman"), Scott Glenn ("Sargeant Lee"), and Anna Paquin ("Robyn Lee"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Miramax/Buena Vista)
Running time: 01:38:40
Country: UK, Germany

Picked by Elwood Jones

Joaquin Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a pencil pusher for a supply squadron in the Army, who's stationed in Germany during the tail end of the Cold War (1989 to be exact). Just to give you an idea of what kinda person Elwood is, he's one of those characters in films who has luck on his side and is able to get away with everything without facing repercussions of any sort. In some cases, those characters represent the underdogs, but sometimes those characters are just total douchebags with very little redeeming qualities. Not to get ahead of myself here, but Elwood falls into the latter category.

Elwood has learned to "work the system", for lack of a better term. He and some fellow soldiers manufacture and sell heroin using military resources. Their commander, Col. Berman, is a pushover and completely oblivious to what's going on, which gives Elwood a lot of room to maneuver under the radar and run a smooth operation. That is, until a crusty Vietnam vet, Sgt. Lee, takes over as the squadron's new "Top" (the NCO in charge). He immediately gets on Elwood's case and a feud gradually develops between the two. To get under Sgt. Lee's skin, Elwood begins dating his daughter, Robyn, but ends up taking a liking to her. Long story short, lines are crossed, boundaries are overstepped, and the feud between Elwood and Sgt. Lee spirals out of control.

BUFFALO SOLDIERS falls somewhere in the middle with me. The film just didn't work for me, for a number of reasons, but at the same time it's too competent a film on a technical level for me to give it an outright bad review. One of the biggest issues I have with it is that it's a downer of a film, which is something I wasn't expecting. It's more or less advertised as a comedy; the characters in it seem like they'd belong in a comedy, and the bumbling military squadron aspect of the film (not to mention how ridiculous and unrealistic the military is portrayed) is reminiscent of STRIPES, but there's nothing in the film that even got so much as a chuckle out of me. On the other hand, it's a bit too serious in tone to be considered an effective black comedy.

On a personal note, as someone who's actually served in the armed forces, I wasn't a fan at all of how the military was portrayed in the film. I understand it's all fiction and done for the sake of entertainment, but at the same time a lot of it felt like the military was purposely being painted in a bad light. It's unfair of me to say that since I haven't read the book that this film's based on, but that's just how I felt while watching the movie. Trust me, I'm not saying every single soldier out there is an angel, because I've met a lot of scumbags during my stint in the military, but this film gives you the impression that they're all either drug addicts, enablers, bullies, or generally rotten people. In general, with the exception of maybe Anna Paquin's character, every character in the film is a shitty person in some form or another.

Given the nature of the movie, I guess it's destined to piss people off, so I can't really be too critical of the statement that it's trying to make. There's supposed to be a commentary and a level of irony here, but I just didn't care enough to be affected by it. At least the cast is decent. Joaquin Phoenix seems like a natural douchebag in the film, which I suppose is a testament to how good of an actor he is. Ed Harris is as great as always despite him being underutilized; he would have been the perfect person to play Sgt. Lee. Speaking of which, while I wasn't blown away by Scott Glenn's performance, he had the look down. Glenn either served in the military, did a good amount of research, or had some knowledgeable advisers on the set, because he genuinely looked like a crusty old Sargeant. Not a bad film, overall, but not one that I enjoyed, nor one that I can see myself watching again.

Score: 5.5


  1. Sorry you didn't like it, as it's for me in my personal top 20. I agree the tone does seem to be all over the place, as it never knows wether to be a comedy or a drama but unlike the book I felt it had alot more focus, especially seeing how the book is wildly diffrent to the film with Elwood being pretty much a full blown addict, while Anna Paquin's is not covered in burns, but instead missing an arm!
    The book also has the distinction of being a book written in second person perspective (atleast I think that's what it's called) with everything being "you do this" or "You do that".

    I suppose it's the idea that if you prepare men for war and then fail to give them one, then they will happily create one of thier own, which appealled to me the most here, for as Elwood best puts it "Peace is fucking boring".

    Thanks for giving an alternative perspective.

  2. Don't apologize... even though I didn't care for it, I'm glad I watched it! The great thing about these reader requests is that they give me an "outside the box" approach on films and in some cases allow me to watch films I normally wouldn't bother with.

    Thanks for the insight on the book. I was curious as to what the differences or similarities were, but obviously not enough to go out and read it.

    "I suppose it's the idea that if you prepare men for war and then fail to give them one, then they will happily create one of thier own, which appealled to me the most here, for as Elwood best puts it "Peace is fucking boring"."

    That's the message I got from the film but didn't really know how to convey it properly in my review. I understand this is a divisive film, and who knows, maybe I will give it another go sometime and see what I think of it the second time around now that I know what to expect.

  3. I believe Scott Glenn served in the Marine Corps. for 3 years so that's why he plays such effective military men (see THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER).

    I agree with you on this one. Uneven, all over the place and just couldn't decide what kind of film it wanted to be. I thought for balancing satire with the horrors of war, JARHEAD was much more effective.

  4. It's been many years since I've seen RED OCTOBER. I agree with you about JARHEAD, though.