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Adrian Mackinder

Published July 18th, 2003 | by Adrian Mackinder

Buffalo Soldiers Review

Classification: 15 Director: Gregor Jordan Rating: 4/5

For a time it looked as though no one would ever get to see this film. Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan shot it in 2000, as an adaptation of a subversive novel by Robert O’Connor about an American army fighting nothing but boredom in 1989 Germany during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Here the US soldiers are drug-addicted wasters, engaging in violent scraps amongst themselves in an effort to relieve the tedium. It was a controversial viewpoint that gave the finger to the patriotic American establishment, showing their noble, elite forces as nothing more than dishonourable thugs and heroin dealers. And this was before 9/11

Subsequently, when that event changed the world irrevocably and America stormed into Afghanistan then into Gulf War no. 2 brimming with patriotic zeal not seen since the days of George Washington, this film became a hot potato. No studio really wanted to touch it, let alone distribute it. Fortunately for us however, they have.

The plot follows charming rogue Elwood (an electric Joaquin Phoenix), who spends his day as a clerk to the inept but caring Commander Berman (the ever-reliable Ed Harris). But when he’s not pushing pencils, Elwood also has a nice line in black market deals, from heroin to his fellow officers, to stolen guns to the local German mafia. Things are pretty sweet for Elwood, until the arrival of monstrous top Sergeant Lee, played with gruff ferocity by Scott Glenn, who is determined to rumble this cocksure clerk’s cushy life. Things really kick off when Elwood takes a shine to Sergeant Lee’s daughter, the rebellious Robyn (Anna Paquin), and he begins pushing things about as far as any right-thinking man should, even if that man is a charismatic and effortlessly charming spiv.

Following in the tradition of M*A*S*H* and the excellent Three Kings, Buffalo Soldiers is a screamingly funny satire, caustically ridiculing the pointless situations that US GI’s have found themselves in over the years; stationed far from home and not really sure why they’re there, or what they’re supposed to be doing and all the while growing completely and utterly bored out of their minds. And like those earlier films, Jordan’s film also deals with the serious implications that can arise from this kind of situation, often with tragic results. But before giving you the impression that this is another worthy, liberal piece of self-righteous filmmaking, it should be mentioned that this film can at times bear a passing resemblance to light-hearted romps such as Police Academy and Dad’s Army. But in a good way.

In an effort to win back those of you that have stopped reading after that last comment, let me explain. The brilliant script (also by Jordan) is teeming with fractured, complicated characters. Even our hero, Elwood is morally reprehensible and devious. Combine this with some pretty dark moments and you’re left with what could quite have easily become a very bleak film. However the balance is sustained perfectly by the presence of several farcical set pieces in which or Sgt. Mahoney or Captain Mainwaring wouldn’t look out of place. Yet, rather than diluting the impact of the film, these scenes come as a welcome respite from the grim themes that run through the story as a whole and ultimately make it a thought-provoking yet enjoyable experience.

This success is of course aided by a magnificent cast. Ed Harris and Scott Glenn are both excellent, relishing their roles as an utterly useless Commander who really doesn’t want to be there and the embodiment of evil incarnate respectively. If there is any weaknesses here, it could be argued that Paquin is a tad timid a choice to play such a feisty character, but she still manages to hold her own here. But it is Phoenix who owns this film; even though Elwood’s methods and motives are far from admirable, he never makes the character unlikeable. In fact, he’s about as damn cool as the sleek David Holmes score that pumps through the film. And that’s pretty damn cool. Choosing Holmes as a composer was a bit of a masterstroke, as his big-beat soundscapes that made Out of Sight so stylish give Buffalo Soldiers a fresh feel, despite being set in the tail end of the decade that taste forgot.

This is definitely one of the must-see films of this year and also a breath of fresh air for the summer cinema-goers, especially as this time of year tends to mean big bucks and small plots. This very funny film does have a serious message to tell, but manages to do this without being preachy nor exploiting the gravity of a situation purely for the sake of cheap laughs. The balance is just right and in retrospect, it seems bizarre that this film was in danger of not being released after current events over the past few years. Given all that’s going on in the world at the moment, it’s films exactly like this little gem that should be getting made more often.


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