Buffalo Soldiers

In the aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001, a number of movies were postponed, altered or scrapped entirely. Footage of the World Trade Center was scrubbed from films like Men in Black II, Spider-Man and Zoolander. The Bourne Identity altered its script to remove numerous references to terrorism. The Time Machine and Spy Game had to snip footage that resembled footage from the attacks a little too closely. Collateral Damage was pushed back a few months due to its portrait of a terrorist attack. Were all of these measures truly necessary? Probably not, but it's understandable that movie studios would want to err on the side of sensitivity.

Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers was also significantly affected by the events of 9/11, but it was different sort of case. The film contains no shots of the WTC, no references to terrorism and little in the way of potentially triggering imagery. However, what it does offer is a thoroughly cynical, black-hearted portrait of the American military, and nobody wanted to watch a movie like that during a moment of collective national grieving. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival just three days before 9/11, and was quickly placed back on the shelf after the attack took place. It sat there for nearly two years, finally being granted a release during the summer of 2003. Turns out that nobody wanted to watch it then, either.

Buffalo Soldiers may be best-remembered as a mere footnote in the story of 9/11's cultural impact, but it's not a bad movie. It plays like a fusion of Sgt. Bilko, M*A*S*H, Kelly's Heroes and Three Kings if all of those efforts had a serious mean streak and thoroughly unlikable characters. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it probably won't be, but it's an interesting take on what some the lovable scoundrels from those films and shows might be like if they weren't so lovable.

The film's central player is Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line), a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Germany. The year is 1989, the Cold War is nearing its conclusion and most of the soldiers on Elwood's base have precious little of interest to do. To fill the time (and line his pockets), Elwood has created a black market of sorts, selling the Army's excess supplies to German buyers, supplying his fellow soldiers with drugs and even cooking heroin for a powerful local dealer. The arrangement has worked out well for him so far: he drives a swanky Mercedes, always has plenty of spending money in his pocket and can effectively get just about anything he wants. Alas, the good days are about to come to a halt.

Elwood receives a nemesis in the form of Sgt. Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs), a no-nonsense hardass who immediately suspects Elwood's up to something and determines to put a stop to it. Rather than backing down, Elwood decides he's up for a confrontation: he asks Lee's daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin, X-Men) out on a date. Battles between angry sergeants and smirking underlings are common in military comedies, but the laughs in this case are fairly caustic: the sergeant has a psychopathic streak, and the underling is a cold-hearted mercenary.

The increasingly high-stakes struggle between these two forms the meat of the film, and almost all of that material works well. What doesn't work are the film's broader bits of satire involving the peripheral characters, including a sequence in which a group of drugged-up junkies accidentally kill two fellow soldiers with a tank. I don't object to the notion that soldiers occasionally die due to stupid, pointless accidents in the military – they certainly do – but rather the manner in which the sequence is staged. It relies on everyone involved being cartoonishly dumb, and it undercuts the relatively smarter satire being offered elsewhere.

The performances are mostly solid. Joaquin Phoenix's narration is both bland and blandly delivered, but otherwise he turns in a convincingly loathsome protagonist who has just enough vulnerability to feel human. Scott Glenn's stern, growly turn is the sort of thing he does remarkably well, and he also manages to avoid turning into yet another R. Lee Ermey imitator. His brand of intimidation is quiet – he'll whisper threats in your ear rather than shouting them. I liked Anna Paquin's work as Glenn's charming but conflicted daughter (she's torn between affection for Elwood and concern for her father's emotional health), and Ed Harris (The Rock) has a few nice scenes as Elwood's sadsack superior officer (a well-intentioned man who doesn't realize that he's no longer in control of his own men).

Is the film an attack on the American military? Only in the sense that it suggests that the military is comprised of a wide variety of human beings with different motivations, some of whom are willing to use their power for less-than-noble purposes. That doesn't make them much different from a police department or a major corporation or a megachurch or any other large group of people wielding any measure of power and/or authority. This isn't an attack on foreign policy or military code so much as an acknowledgment that reckless opportunism will find a way to thrive in any environment. In other words: shit floats to the top.

Buffalo Soldiers

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2003