Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Gregor Jordan’s indie flick, Buffalo Soldiers.
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Screenplay by Gregor Jordan, Eric Axel Weiss, and Nora Maccoby.
Tagline: Steal all that you can steal.
What It’s About:
As the Cold War winds down in West Germany, an unscrupulous and opportunistic Army supply clerk, Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), commands a booming black market trade in surplus material and home cooked heroin under the nose of his oblivious commander (Ed Harris). When a hardnosed new top sergeant (Scott Glenn) arrives and threatens Elwood’s operation in the midst of his biggest deal ever, he complicates things by getting involved with the man’s rebellious daughter (Anna Paquin).
Why I Bought It
There’s an inherent absurdity to the uniformity and philosophy of military service which the occasional work brings to light amid the admittedly more appealing fanfare and ass kicking that’s prevalent in examinations of the subject. Literature tends to get away with it a bit more. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 comes to mind, but there are a few movies too – the adaptation of Catch 22, MASH, Jarhead, Stripes, elements of Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Maybe in movies it’s harder to get away with because if you want a realistic portrayal of the military you usually have to involve them in the production? I don’t know. If that were true, I doubt Buffalo Soldiers would ever have been made. But then again, it too, like Full Metal Jacket and Jarhead, was a book first.
Like Jarhead, its main subject is the activities of America’s warriors in peacetime, in this case, on a secure base in Stuttgart months before the fall of the Berlin Wall (as it unfolds on the news, several of the stoned soldiers profess to not even knowing what country the Wall is in). Like Catch 22, it focuses on the black marketeering of soldiers, in this case, Elwood and his cronies (the always great Michael Pena, Michael Wright, and later, Gabriel Mann), who use their influence as supply clerks to divert surplus into the hands of dubious German buyers and make enough to keep them in Rollexes cooking heroin on base.
Elwood isn’t Sgt. Bilko. He’s a manipulative, mostly amoral, but highly intelligent individual who chose enlistment over a prison stint, and whose criminal leanings aren’t overly affected by his service. He plays his commanding officer, the earnest but ineffectual Colonel Berman, like a more successful Eddie Haskell, playing the part of a loyal and attentive assistant while sleeping with Berman’s wife (among all his other criminal activities). What’s appealing to me about Elwood’s character is what Anna Paquin’s Robyn calls out about him at one point – he’s bored, and he seems to be doing everything he’s doing more out relieving that boredom rather than true malice. Instead of knuckling down at the appearance of a new top sergeant obviously there to investigate rumors of his activities, he dates the man’s daughter. When, in one hilarious sequence, a seriously stoned tank crew out on maneuvers goes on an accidental rampage that results in the death of two Army truck drivers, Elwood orders his boys to confiscate and hide the trucks full of guns rather than turn them in, and sets out to make a five million dollar deal and ‘retire.’ The tank crew is never brought to justice, or even mentioned again.
The plot is intricate and replete with enough double crosses to keep your attention. Of course when Elwood goes for the big score the noose tightens, not only with Sgt. Lee (Glenn), but also with Turkish criminals, Russian interlopers, and the base’s own gang-like military police, led by the bullying, opportunistic, staunchly vegetarian (!) Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey). Seeing how Elwood gets out of his predicaments is part of the fun. There are some nice surprises, and a clever bit of table turning involving the heroin cooking and Saad’s refusal to eat meat that’s pretty cool.
More than blackly humorous, I would say in parts, it’s blackly hilarious. There is a subplot in which Berman vies for promotion with a rival, Colonel Marshall (Brian Delate) and throws a dinner party celebrating the revelation that he’s related to an obscure Confederate war hero (The Iron Boar) to impress his CO, General Lancaster, played by Dean Stockwell. Of course Marshall’s own ancestor George C. Marshall turns out to be more impressive, and when Colonel Marshall disparages Hood by wondering aloud if he lost both an arm and a leg in some military disaster of his own making, Berman splutters “He didn’t lose the arm. He lost the use of it.” As Berman quickly learns that General Lancaster is unimpressed with fancy relations, Sgt. Lee assigns Elwood and Stoney (Leon Robinson) to man the punch table in Confederate uniforms in front of a Stars and Bars flag on the wall – something Stoney, who is black, is obviously not happy about. Elwood and his boys hide their illegal weapons in a nuclear facility on base, which Berman decides to use as a setting for a grand war game to pit his men (which includes Elwood and friends) against Marshall’s, ostensibly to woo Lancaster’s favor. Of course the whole thing’s going down the same day Elwood needs to move the guns under threat of death from the Turks, and Garcia (Pena) remarks, “If we’re not dead by 1700, we’re fuckin’ dead!” The interplay of Lee and Elwood as the investigation intensifies if pretty humorous. At one point Lee confiscates Elwood’s civilian automobile for a live fire exercise and orders Elwood to blow up his own vehicle with an M-60.
The whole movie has a very slick, indie gangster feel, with a great classic hip hop soundtrack. There are some excellent compositions. An early one where the soldiers march across a Patton-esque US flag painted on the ground, and Elwood’s portentous dreams of falling (unlike most people, in his falling dream he always hits the ground) are beautifully filmed. I’m surprised this flick doesn’t have a better reputation. Apparently its release, too critical of the United States military, was pre-empted for two years following the September 11th Attacks, I guess because nobody wanted to speak bad about the military then.
I had forgotten how much I liked it.
In an early scene, when a soldier accidentally kills himself playing football in the barracks, Elwood drafts a letter home to the deceased kid’s parents, trying to put a spin on his foolish demise as Berman listens. The Colonel’s only critique –
“The word ‘resplendent.’ I don’t think that’s a good word to describe a soldier. What about….contained? In him were contained the virtues of honor and loyalty. That’s much better, don’t you think?”
“Oh much better, sir.”
“Scrap ‘resplendent.’ Don’t let that word leave this base.”
I think the climactic threeway clash of Garcia and Elwood’s heroin cookers, Saad’s MP’s, and Sgt. Lee’s strike team in a room full of overcooking heroin as the fall of the Berlin wall plays out on an overturned TV was particularly cool. The fumes start getting all the combatants ridiculously high, yet they still push on with their fight, smiling faintly as they shoot and plunge combat knives into each other. Very chilling, and juxtaposed with Elwood battling the homicidal Lee as he narrates a Nietczhe quote and likens it to an inherent inability for men to avoid going to war, the whole thing in hindsight seems almost to condemn a war that had not yet begun, one which we’re still fighting today.
I can see why it wasn’t released.
Next In The Queue: A Bullet For The General