Buffalo Soldiers (R) ★★★

Review Date: August 7th, 2003

Buffalo Soldiers, a satire about corruption on American military bases in the late 1980s, focuses on a wily Army clerk running a profitable sideline in black-market heroin and arms dealing.


''You ship 400,000 trained killers over to some foreign land, better give them a war,'' Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) quips. ''War is hell, but peace? Peace is boring.'' Set in 1989 at Theodore Roosevelt Army Base just outside of Stuttgart, West Germany, Elwood, like most of the men at the base, are there out of military servitude: the army serves as a reasonable alternative to a prison sentence. Elwood occupies his time by selling products like Mop'N'Glo on the black market and cooking heroin for the base's head of Military Police, Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahumd-Bey). But when Elwood literally stumbles on about $5 million worth of weapons, he thinks he can finally retire--until a new base sergeant, Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), sets his sights on cleaning up the base. Elwood gets back at Lee by sleeping with his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), but Lee has more sinister plans for the battalion secretary. Based on the 1993 novel by Robert E. O'Connor, Buffalo Soldiers graphically illustrates rampant drug use and criminal activities that the author describes as a bad patch in the Army's history in the late 1980s. Although the film's depiction of events has been called into question, its explicit scenes, including one in which some soldiers take a hit of smack and drive their tank over some gas pumps and fry two officers in the process, are harshly persuasive. Buffalo Soldiers is a haunting look at a military that is at war--with itself.


Phoenix has churned up scores of strong performances in the past, including roles in To Die For, The Yards and Gladiator--which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Roman emperor Commodus. With the role of Elwood in Buffalo Soldiers, he once again gets to show off his remarkable range. Phoenix shows conviction as a bureaucratic con artist by day and drug dealer by night. But just when you think his character has no scruples, he begins to care about his sniveling roommate, sticking up for him when base bullies harass him and cleaning up his cuts when he gets beaten up. And even though he starts off dating Robyn to piss off her father, his motives change once he gets to know her. Phoenix's Elwood plays his cards close to his chest; we can never tell if he really wants to change for the better or just wants Robyn to believe that he does. There is something we like about him either way, as does Robyn. Paquin's Robyn is young, rebellious and incredibly sharp. She has grown up on a military base and has become an expert at figuring people out, which makes her a perfect match for Elwood. Does she change this antihero for the better? You will have to see the movie to find out.


Miramax Films acquired Buffalo Soldiers at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10, 2001--the day before the terrorist attacks radically changed public opinion on the American military's role. With the tagline, ''Steal All You Can Steal,'' the film was bound to set off sparks. Fearing moviegoers would view the film's release as inappropriate, the studio shelved it until now. Helmed by Australian director Gregor Jordan, Buffalo Soldiers does not paint a pretty portrait of the U.S. Army; there is plenty of gritty imagery of soldiers shooting up heroin juxtaposed against familiar slogans like ''Be All That You Can Be.'' Whether you believe Jordan's take on the subject matter to be accurate or not, the film is not as anti-military as it has been made out to be. Jordan's two extreme perspectives effectively illustrate the connection O'Connor makes in his novel between the century-old Buffalo Soldiers, a term used to describe the freed slaves employed by the Union Army to wipe out the native population in the 1800s, and the movie's uniformed dregs stationed in West Germany at the fringe of the Cold War era: Neither group had anything to gain from fighting. In the film, Elwood and company have an even harder time dealing with the boredom that comes from being idled by peace, thus rekindling their delinquent tendencies. The U.S. Army in Buffalo Soldiers is in effect representative of a society or a subculture set in a greedy decade that operates under its own rules and values, and Jordan's screenplay gets this point across without ever preaching to the audience.

Bottom Line

Director Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers is a haunting look at a Cold War era military that is not at war with the Soviet Union but with itself. Strong performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Anna Paquin make this film well worth watching.