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Buffalo Soldiers

Gregor Jordan's savage American military satire, Buffalo Soldiers, debuted at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8th, 2001. Probably the most unflinching satire of its kind since Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), the film was quickly and tragically rendered distasteful by the events of three days later. Suddenly, the idea of a U.S. Army rendered aimless and enemy-less by the end of the Cold War, symbolized in the film by the fall of the Berlin Wall, seemed outdated as a new, if imprecise, battle emerged around the globe. Luckily for director Jordan, it only took a year for a war to arrive that many at home and abroad deemed illogical and criminal. Suddenly, the film was once again a live grenade, but rather than lob it out on the American public, distributor Miramax jumped on it as if to spare the country from subversive and potentially divisive thought. Though still unquestionably dated, Buffalo Soldiers works well enough as a comedy that it probably would've found an audience. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Ray Elwood, an amoral requisitioner for an Army company stationed in West Germany who takes advantage of the base's cluelessly accommodating commander (Ed Harris) as he makes a tidy profit by over-requesting supplies and selling the excess on the black market. But his real windfall comes from cooking heroin, which he turns around and sells to his fellow soldiers, ensuring that they're constantly smacked out of their gourds. This results in one tank-training mission gone hilariously awry, and a seemingly never-ending string of accidental deaths that necessitates a new Top Sergeant (Scott Glenn) being assigned to get the company under control. Almost immediately, the sergeant is on Elwood's case, sniffing out his illegal operation and effectively shutting it down. Compounding matters for Elwood is his recent acquisition of an enormous batch of heroin in exchange for an intercepted arms shipment that could cost him his life if he fails to make good on his end of the deal. Upon realizing that the straight-laced Top won't deal, Elwood irrationally begins a psychological war with his newfound antagonist by romancing his beautiful young daughter (Anna Paquin). Meanwhile, the base's rogue military police begin muscling Elwood and his partners to steal a piece of their action. Aside from the running joke about the company's frequent "friendly-fire" fatalities, the movie also wrings laughs out of the commander's jockeying for promotion by playing up his relation to a Civil War general, who, it turns out, was more infamous than illustrious. Indeed, when simply content to be a rowdy military comedy, Buffalo Soldiers is often very funny. As political satire, however, it's frustratingly leaden and overly explicative, force-feeding its central metaphor of perpetual warfare when the point has already been sufficiently driven home. In the end, it's not that the film lacks for timeliness; it's just too aggressive when it needs to be sly. Despite Jordan's shortcomings as a humorist, though, he's quite generous with his actors, allowing his impressive cast the space to craft full-blooded characterizations from otherwise thinly written characters. Buena Vista/Miramax presents Buffalo Soldiers in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with fine Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a feature-length commentary from director Jordan, a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled "Beyond the Iron Curtain," an "Anatomy of a Scene" segment from the Sundance Channel, and a few theatrical trailers for other long-shelved Miramax films. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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