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Buffalo Soldiers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Buffalo Soldiers

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin
Director: Gregor Jordan
Rated: R
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: July 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth McGovern, Gabriel Mann

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

High school history textbooks and the teachers who overuse them tend not only to oversimplify the past but to spoute wholesale irrelevancies. Movies, which conjure the real emotions of our past, can often serve as antidotes. For example, remember how your 10th grade instructor had you memorize the basic causes of not only World War II but of all wars ever fought? Nationalism. Imperialism. Militarism. Alliances. Lack of a strong international organization. Maybe. But according to director Gregory Jordan who co-write "Buffalo Soldiers" with Eric Alex Weiss and Nora Maccoby, the real cause of fighting is...boredom. In this artfully constructed tale based on the book by Robert O' Connor, boredom is the cause of warfare in Germany involving American soldiers, but the enemies of the American soldiers are...the American soldiers! The men in the cast plus two of the women are so listless, given the lack of a foreign foe, that they resort to unusual activities not so much to make money but simply to be active. Reading a book, watching TV, even playing touch football involving the sudden death of one of the players simply won't do. They must tempt the fates with illicit activity to replace the adrenalin rush that they'd inevitably feel if they were in actual combat.

Anchored by a solid performance from Joachim Phoenix in the role of laid-back private in one of the many army barracks in Germany just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, "Buffalo Soldiers" is a dark comedy that recalls surreal offerings like Mike Nichols' "Catch 22," an imaginative, gory pic about the horrors of World War II. The opening scene will make film buffs think of the stunner that concludes "Dr. Strangelove," and while "Buffalo Soldiers" never really rises to the class of Stanley Kubrick's take on Armageddon and while Phoenix is no Peter Sellers, Jordan's shoot is compelling and imaginative, at once amusing and horrifying.

Elwood (Joachim Phoenix) takes the role of a soldier in an American base camp who fends off boredom by involvement in black market operations with most of his buddies. His specialty is acquiring drugs at wholesale prices ,for example by trading enough of the base's Mop 'n' Glo to wash every floor in the country. He cooks the powder for resale in a large lab right under the eye of the mild-mannered but incompetent commanding officer, Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), whose philandering wife (Elizabeth McGovern) nudges her husband to elevate his rank while she performs other elevations on young Elwood. All's cool until a new, incorruptible sergeant, Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives at the base to clean up operations, a weathered Vietnam veteran who loves violence and does not take kindly to Elwood's moves on Lee's rebellious daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin).

This base at Stuttgart (actually filmed by Oliver Stapleton at an abandoned camp in the village of Sudentenstr. 93-95) just might be the only place that need not meditate on a single dull moment thanks to the black-marketeers led by Elwood, whose antics lead to a series of violent climaxes that could have come out of Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," all the more horrifying given the lack of an external opponent. Riotous scenes, such as the squashing of a Volkswagen Beetle by a tank driven by stoned American drivers alternate with gruesome revenge activities to provide an image of American soldiers so crazy, so freaked-out, that you sometimes don't wonder why even the Western world is so fearful of the Yankee cowboy.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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