Spiralling Out of Control

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Review of 'Buffalo Soldiers', director Gregor Jordan

Buffalo Soldiers is a film that suffered from poor timing. Acquired by Miramax on 10 September 2001, a day later it was the sort of film that Hollywood didn't want. Its release was postponed again due to the Iraq war. At its first showing in the US an outraged critic threw a water bottle at the director because of its negative portrayal of the US military.

Buffalo Soldiers shows the US military away from home in a dark light. Racism is rife. People die unnecessarily all the time and their next of kin are sent letters about it being 'in the line of duty'. Buffalo Soldiers is a depiction of an out of control US military base in West Germany where the soldiers drive the tanks doped-up, and joined up to avoid prison - having been ordered to 'serve time or your country'. It is about bureaucracy, crime and the dehumanising nature of the military.

So much for the good news! The problem is this black comedy by director Gregor Jordan isn't as clever as it thinks it is. The movie can't shake the ghosts of M*A*S*H, Catch-22 and The Phil Silvers Show - and the nodding references to all three in the film simply highlight its shortcomings.

Based on Robert O'Connor's novel, the film has Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) running a racketeering operation under the nose of his eccentric and clueless superior officer, Colonel Wallace Berman (Ed Harris). Elwood is dealing heroin, and his new no-nonsense superior officer, Sergeant Robert Lee (his name a symbol of tried and true American militarism), dislikes Elwood not only because he's profiting from the sale of drugs and stolen goods, but also because he's dating his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin). It all spirals down out of control, in a somewhat predictable direction.

'Men with nothing to kill but time,' bemoans the narrator, and that is the message, if there is one: that without a war soldiers will turn on each other. This is grafted onto the 'anti-hero fights authority' plot, which means the climactic showdown between Elwood's supposedly rational insubordination and Lee's bloodthirsty army loyalty comes across as hopelessly muddled.

The film wants to make a statement, but instead becomes a familiar and jumbled mess. I wanted to like this movie, but just because the movie-marketing climate is all gung-ho it doesn't mean that confused cynicism is an entertaining response. Shame, really.