Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Recounting the exploits of a group of US soldiers stationed in Germany at the end of the Cold War, Buffalo Soldiers provides a long-awaited starring role for Joaquin Phoenix, though it does little to stretch his abilities.

At turns funny, violent, bitter and over the top, it's a curious little fable about boredom, risk-taking, and the frustration experienced by trained fighters in peacetime. Some might see it as a scathing attack on US army management, but in fact it describes little that wasn't already widely known. The ostensible hero, Elwood, is involved in the sort of scams which every military operation has to try and deal with.

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He cooks drugs, he sells requisitioned items on the black market, he arranges a cover-up when his unit's boisterousness inadvertently results in the death of one of their number. The ugliness of his activities is mitigated by his easy charm; his confidence and willingness to survive on his wits carries him through all sorts of dangerous situations; yet this only increases his compulsion to push things further, and when the opportunity arises for him to make some money out of a major criminal operation, he is unable to resist. Just to complicate things, this happens at the same time that Scott Glenn's bitter Vietnam veteran Sergeant Lee begins investigating his affairs, and Elwood finds himself drawn to the sergeant's edgy daughter (Anna Paquin).

Most of the tension in this film centres on the relationship between Elwood and Lee. Scott Glenn's performance is at first terse and blackly humorous, yet as his character unravels his psychosis makes less and less sense; there isn't much the actor can do to save a poorly developed character. The pathological nature of Elwood's behaviour is much more subtly drawn, inviting the audience dangerously close.

There are some interesting performances from the supporting cast, especially Paquin and Elizabeth McGovern as the women in Elwood's life, though the former is treated rather dismissively by the script at the end. Some of the best scenes are between McGovern's character and her husband, the unit's colonel (Ed Harris), but he too is dismissed in a rather twee way when his usefulness to the story is over. An often sharp and entertaining script disintegrates towards the end, suggesting that writer Eric Weiss' confidence with intimate dialogue didn't extend to scripting action sequences.

At times the film doesn't quite seem to know where to balance itself between comedy and grim drama. Buffalo Soldiers is by no means a bad film, but it could have been much better.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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Cynical depiction of life as a US soldier in Germany, 1989.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Gregor Jordan

Writer: Gregor Jordan, Eric Axel Weiss, Nora MacCoby, based on the novel by Robert O'Connor

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, Scott Glenn, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Leon Robinson

Year: 2001

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany/UK/US

Festivals:

EIFF 2002

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