Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Mikhail Gorbachev: “No problem. Would you like a case of Stoli with that?”
What’s a warrior to do? “Where there is peace the warlike man attacks himself,” said philosopher/tagline writer, Friedrich Nietzsche. Well, that’s one option.
Its 1989 in West Germany and the Berlin Wall is going to be hacked into souvenir cement chips any day now. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) lets other U.S. soldiers play careerist war games or blow their own minds shooting up. Instead, he focuses his aggression on taking profligate advantage of his superior, the deeply clueless Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) — acting as boy-toy to the colonel’s scheming wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and stealing a boatload of Mop ‘n Glo to sell on the black market. Not that Ray limits himself to harmless contraband. He also eagerly “cooks” heroin for distribution by a brutal MP/crime lord (Sheik Mahmud-Bey).
When a tank manned by some stoned-out-of-their-gourd junkies goes briefly AWOL, it winds up incinerating a pair of innocent bystanders — who just happen to be ferrying a truckload full of high-grade weaponry. Ray stumbles on the cache and persuades his more cautious buddies (Leon Robinson and Michael Pena) that it’s time to move up the crime ladder by committing a little light treason.
Everything seems perfect, until fly-in-the-ointment Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) starts making Ray’s life difficult. Little things, like destroying his TV, sticking Ray with a baby-faced squarejohn of a roommate (Gabriel Mann) and forcing him to participate in the murder of his beloved Mercedes. Ray’s response is characteristically cynical and reckless: He dates the Sergeant’s rebellious, intriguing daughter (Anna Paquin). This approach turns out to be unwise in any number of ways, especially when Ray starts to fall for her.
Echoing the black comedy of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22,” Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Americanization of Emily,” and — perhaps most closely — Stanley Kubrick’s nihilistic “Full Metal Jacket,” “Buffalo Soldiers” is a rarity — a film that’s been delayed for two years not by lousy quality or by studio sabotage, but by world history. Having sold the picture to Miramax on September 10, 2001, director Gregor Jordan and the Weinstein crew have determined to wait for a time when Americans are not engaged in war and being bombarded by an endless barrage of “support the troops” propaganda. At times, it seems as if that date is “not in this lifetime,” and the film has already attracted some criticism for its poster. But it looks like July 25th will have to do, and we all know that the right kind of controversy can be very good for ticket sales.
With an efficient, clever screenplay by Eric Axel Weiss, Nora Maccoby and (uncredited) director Gregor Jordan, “Buffalo Soldiers” is not particularly anti-war or even critical of U.S. foreign policy — it’s merely honest about the fact that enlisting in the military doesn’t transform deficient individuals, and it can be provide attractive cover for sociopaths and murderers. Unfortunately, that candor ultimately breaks down somewhat during the films final scene, when director Jordan makes a game attempt at a moralistic mockery a la “The Player,” and falls just short of the mark. Endings are hard.
Nevertheless, this is an outstanding American debut for Gregor Jordan. His previous feature is the Australian success, “Two Hands”, unseen by me, but on the strength of “Buffalo Soldiers,” I*m prepared to declare him a major talent. With the help of crack cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (“The Grifters”) and Production Designer Steven Jones-Evans, Jordan perpetually fills up his widescreen frame with beautiful, foreboding, and occasionally surreal imagery heavy on cool. Adept at both violent action and comedy, Jordan maintains tension while allowing plenty of time for the excellent cast to really “live” onscreen. Call him “David Fincher with a human face.”
There’s plenty more to praise about “Buffalo Soldiers”. The acting is solid across the board. Joaquin Phoenix manages to generate real sympathy for an essentially nasty character with a touch of compassion but near-zero conscience. Scott Glenn is an excellent foil and Ed Harris clearly has the (understated) time of his life playing comedy. Anna Pacquin, Gabriel Mann and Leon Robinson all turn in strong, sympathetic performances.
Gregor Jordan also deserves some credit for the film’s intelligent use of late eighties hip-hop and for selecting Irish DJ turned film composer David Holmes (Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11) to deliver another excellent, trippy score.
Assuming that irony isn’t dead — and it’s not — “Buffalo Soldiers” has a decent shot at attracting healthy box office. I hope it does, because I want to see a lot more from Mr. Jordan.