Buffalo Soldiers  (2001)


Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin

Director: Gregor Jordan

Rating: R

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Release Date: January 13, 2004
Review posted: January 12, 2004

Spoilers: Minor


Reviewed by Dennis Landmann


"Just some requisitions, Sir." - Ray Elwood




A U.S. soldier with nothing left to fight but boredom as the Cold War winds down, Ray Elwood (Phoenix) enjoys the rush of trading anything he can get his hands on in West Germany's booming black market while his inept Commander (Harris) is none the wiser. Everything is perfect until he starts dating the new Sergeant's daughter, Robyn (Paquin). But before he can pull off one last big score, Elwood's escalating personal war with Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) will send him deeper into a deadly mess that may not have a way out.




Buffalo Soldiers shot from November 2000 through January 2001 in Germany, but was released in the States only last year in the fall. That's a little more than two and a half years, although the film actually premiered at Sundance early last year. Still, this film sat on the shelf for quite a while, and I'm glad it's finally out on video for people to see. Some people have called the film unpatriotic, but it's not like that. Buffalo Soldiers presents a story about a man who chose three years in the Army instead of six months in jail. This is Ray Elwood, and he doesn't mind going over the line sometimes, stealing things to make a profit, or cooking an illegal substance with other officers inside an abandoned building.


The film doesn't depict the Military in a bad way per se, it just shows us that certain places and certain times can have troubling consequences on the minds of a few soldiers who are bored to death. In that sense, Buffalo Soldiers is an entertaining comedy worth checking out. Directed by Gregor Jordan, the film is most effective in its direction of comedy and its shaping of the plot. The opening scene is pretty cool, especially because it evokes a certain danger. Ray Elwood is having another "falling" dream, falling through the sky like a bomb. His problem is he never wakes up. He always hits the ground. The script is accurate and effective in the way it introduces the character and leads him through the story.


The turning point of the story begins when three soldiers sit and wait inside their tank while on a training mission. They figure nothing is going to happen, so they shoot up on some of Elwood's drugs. Just as they get high an order comes in for them to move on. They start moving, but they lost all sense of direction. What follows is a hilarious scene with the tank driving through a German village, crashing through an open market and running over a Volkswagen Beetle, and causing a huge explosion at a gas station. Add to that, two soldiers are killed in the explosion, leaving their Army trucks unattended. To top the scene off, the tank cuts through some forest and miraculously ends up at exactly the right location. When Elwood and his two buddies, Stoney (Leon Robinson) and Garcia (Michael Pena), get to the site, an opportunity arises for the the three to make a fortune, and possibly even retire, because inside those trucks are highly valuable weapons that can be traded in for a sweet $3-5 million.


Before spoiling too much, let me just say this is just the start. Just when Ray thought things can't go wrong, they do. Ray takes out the Sergeant's daughter, Robyn, to piss him off, which starts a personal war that leads to an incredible training exercise, and gives two young people the chance to get to know each other and spend some quality time. The relationship between Ray and Robyn never seems forced, and actors Joaquin Phoenix and Anna Paquin share some good chemistry. Phoenix proves he's a solid actor, making Ray Elwood somewhat sympathetic even though he doesn't deserve it. The role of Commander Berman is filled by Ed Harris who does a decent job with the underdeveloped character. Scott Glenn plays the hardcore Sergeant well, but that's about it. Also making an appearance is Dean Stockwell as a high-ranking Army official and Elizabeth McGovern as Berman's cheating wife. Last but not least, Robinson, Pena and Gabriel Mann, who plays Ray's roommate, do a pretty good job in their respective supporting roles.


There are some elements in Buffalo Soldiers that are reminiscent of M*A*S*H in both content and execution. This occurrence is both welcome and enjoyable, giving the film a certain comedic edge. Adding to that edge and giving the film some punch is David Holmes' slick score. I liked his music in Ocean's 11 a lot, and he composes cool tunes here as well. Gregor Jordan does a very good job of keeping the comedy in balance with some of the drama. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton shoot the film quite well considering the $15 million budget. As I indicated earlier, the script is well-written, yet I wasn't completely satisfied by the last 15-20 minutes. There is a twist I didn't see coming, and it disrupts a very nice moment. The ending is kind of ironic and funny, but a little too fast. Overall, Buffalo Soldiers is consistent and tells a story worth following.


The Video


Miramax presents Buffalo Soldiers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors look adequate and clear, but not incredibly bright. They are well-saturated however, and sharpness appears in good shape. Detail looks good also. But overall the film's palette is not that bright or vivid, yet that's mostly due to the weather conditions in Germany. I don't think it was ever really sunny. Dark tones and black levels are mostly solid. The print image is fairly clean with only one or two specks and a few areas of grain during the nighttime scenes. Overall, an accurate and pretty decent video presentation.


The Audio


Miramax presents Buffalo Soldiers in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. There is not a lot of reinforcement present in this soundtrack, but the surrounds come alive a few times. Rear speakers do a fairly good job of emitting sound effects with much clarity. There isn't much positional audio present in this soundtrack as most of the audio comes from the front, and therefore the audio doesn't quite penetrate all of the soundfield. However, dialogue remains clear and easy to understand. It's a perfectly fine presentation.


Also available is a French dub track.


The Extras


The main supplement is the audio commentary by director Gregor Jordan. He engages in some interesting discussions about the location in Germany, actors, characters, reactions to the film, changes to the script, specific scenes, etc. There are occasional gaps of silence, and he says "um" quite often. Despite that, Jordan offers a pretty decent track. Those who like the film should give it a listen.


Beyond the Iron Curtain is a brief behind-the-scenes look at the film. It's filled with interviews with the main cast members describing the film's premise, and features several clips of both on-set and film footage. Running only a bit less than five minutes, this piece is informative only to an extent, and is presented in fullscreen.


Rounding out the extras is the informative and entertaining Sundance Channel Anatomy of a Scene (24:19). The focus of this documentary is the scene with the tank crashing through a German village and causing the explosion of a gas station. The interviews are with the major crew members, such as director Jordan, the cinematographer, editor, production designer, etc. Phoenix appears only one or two times. The featurette breaks up into a several parts covering specific aspects of making the scene work, such as location and cinematography. Overall, this edition of the Sundance "Anatomy" series is good, but not as good as others (i.e. The Quiet American). A few promo trailers are also available.


You can select to view the film with optional English and French subtitles. The 99-minute feature is organized into sixteen chapters. There is no paper insert.




Buffalo Soldiers is not very timely considering its subject matter, but it's a funny film. The story is fun and dangerous at the same time, plus Phoenix embodies the main character to near perfection. Video/audio quality is just fine, and the few supplements are enjoyable. A recommended rental.









OVERALL (not an average)









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