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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Gabriel Mann, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Leon, Dean Stockwell
Written by: Gregor Jordan, Nora Maccoby and Eric Weiss, based on the book by Robert O'Connor
Directed by: Gregor Jordan
MPAA Rating: R for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality
Running Time: 98
Date: 09/08/2001

Buffalo Soldiers (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Buffalo' Grilling

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Falling far short of a brilliant satire like Three Kings -- but too satirical to be a goofy Army comedy like Stripes -- the new film Buffalo Soldiers still manages enough of both to command attention.

Originally scheduled for release just after 9/11, Buffalo Soldiers finds itself in a strange American landscape in which certain opinions can arouse hostility. More than likely it's a film destined either for controversy or obscurity.

Buffalo Soldiers gives us a far from heroic or noble view of American soldiers stationed in Germany in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Joaquin Phoenix has one of his best roles as Ray Elwood, a sneaky boot-licking secretary to Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), an easily-malleable cream-puff who would rather be running a Napa winery.

In addition to his many other extra-curricular activities, Ray runs the base's drug kitchen, cooking up late-night mind-altering substances and selling them to his fellow soldiers. He also retrieves a case of mislaid guns and arranges to sell it to local German mobsters. During his off hours, he sleeps with the colonel's sexy wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

But when Berman leaves and the nasty new Sgt. Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn) takes over, Ray finds his privileges dwindling and declares war on the sergeant by hooking up with his cute teenage daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin).

Despite a well-placed Nietzsche quote: "during peace the warlike man attacks himself," the film never gets much deeper than Animal House-type heathenism. In one scene, the soldiers prove too stoned or stupid to know which part of Germany -- East or West -- they're currently stationed in.

In another scene, the American soldiers don't even notice when, during a rowdy indoor football game, one of their own smashes his head against a table and dies. Even after Ray points it out to them, no one seems to care.

Phoenix glues the movie together with his Ferris Bueller-like confidence; he's a guy who can fix anything. He always knows what to say and what to do. Ironically, he becomes the movie's natural leader and we follow him.

Director Gregor Jordan clearly has fun looking at the polarity between the two commanding officers, the actual leaders. Berman needs to puff himself up; he makes a big deal when he discovers that one of his ancestors was a warrior called "the Iron Boar." While Lee is already so psychotic that he's not above blowing up a soldiers' car to teach him a lesson.

Whereas Three Kings targeted certain ideas and poked holes in a specific military operation, Buffalo Soldiers aims for a broader, more general area, despite the movie's specific historical setting. Jordan scores a direct hit; and even though his target is the broad side of a barn, it's a most palpable hit.

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