Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) takes advantage of his position in the US Army based in West Germany in 1989, to run a profitable trade in drugs and the black market. His superior officer Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) is a pussy-cat and Ray knows exactly how to handle him. But when the new, fearsome Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives wanting to run things by the book, Ray sees trouble. When bribery gets him nowhere, Ray tries a different tactic - dating Lee's attractive teenage daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin). But his timing couldn't be worse, with one of his local suppliers demanding a large payment on a deal gone wrong.
Review by Louise Keller:
A story about war, where war is boredom, Buffalo Soldiers is a riveting and cynical film about a charismatic operator who uses war as the backdrop for his opportunist activities. It's not surprising that Gregor Jordan's film with its anti-military themes has been sitting on the shelf since 2001 waiting for its theatrical release (it was made between Two Hands and Ned Kelly). But its delay has nothing to do with its accomplishment, and everything to do with world affairs. When we meet Joaquin Phoenix' hustler Ray, we quickly learn that he is the master puppeteer, pulling the strings of his superiors and fellow officers, with black-market scams and lucrative drug deals. Conscience is not what bothers him - after all, he is sleeping with his colonel's wife and regularly writes fabricated letters to relations of officers who have met with a suspicious death. It's fear of falling that is his achilles heel, and life is a game in which he has "nothing to kill except time". Besides, it's a pretty cushy life when things are in your control: "the Mercedes are cheap, there's no speed limit on the freeway and anything you want is available on the black market". Phoenix is superb as the cavalier professional soldier who juggles life to his advantage. It's a credit to Phoenix that he makes Ray a likeable rogue. When his fortunes change and Sergeant Lee takes control, Ray has bitten off a little more than he can chew as he dabbles with a new weapon racketeering opportunity. Of course he initially takes Lee's daughter Robyn out to seriously irritate her father, but we sense the attraction between the two instantly. It's ironic that while his intention is to lead Robyn astray, in fact it is soon very clear that it is the other way around. Scott Glenn is commanding as Lee - it's a tough role and we believe that he is capable of absolutely anything, and I like Ed Harris as the weak Colonel who allows his wife to hen-peck and Ray to flatter. Anna Paquin just gets better and better: she manages to inject such energy into her characters, and her Robyn is a rebel indeed. As events escalate towards the bloody climax, irony reaches its highest point when one of the soldiers watching the demolition of the Berlin Wall on television asks 'Where's the Berlin Wall?' And 'Where's Berlin?' as the soldiers then debate whether they are in fact in East or West Germany. Tension is well maintained throughout the film and the moral is clear: there are no winners in war, and even if there is no war, there will always be conflict. Buffalo Soldiers is an interesting and intelligent film that takes a different slant on the military. It's engrossing, powerful and thought provoking.
Review by David Edwards:
It's taken an awfully long time to get here, but Gregor Jordan's first overseas feature is worth the wait. With Buffalo Soldiers, Jordan displays the kind of cheeky irreverence and bravura style that made Two Hands such a winner. This is the work of a filmmaker solidly in command of the medium. From the extraordinary opening sequence to the spectacular finale, this film never lets go as it brings a keen eye to what happens when soldiers have no war to fight. In that sense, this could be seen as a film about long-term unemployment; but Jordan doesn't make the mistake of wallowing in the (potential) misery of the situation (a la Mike Leigh), instead preferring to entertain with the hijinks perpetrated by his likeable if misguided characters. Jordan's blend of the comic and the sardonic with the deadly serious business of the military taps into a rich vein of previous films, including Robert Altman's MASH and Mike Nichols Catch-22. In doing so, he gives us an insightful alternative view of the US military, at a time when films like We Were Soldiers seem intent on giving us nothing but heroic praise. Stylistically, the film starts at a breakneck pace and barely stops for breath as it crams an awful lot into its 98 minutes running time. The casting is masterful, with Joaquin Phoenix giving a terrific performance as the wily but cocky Elwood. Scott Glenn plays his nemesis, the ironically named Robert E Lee to a tee; while Ed Harris seems to have fun with a much less serious role than normal as the bumbling Colonel Berman. Anna Paquin shows plenty in a rather limited role as Robyn; and audiences here might also recognise Kick Gurry in a small part. Buffalo Soldiers is a remarkable film in many ways; a hilarious, edgy, even dangerous comedy with heart. And it marks Jordan as a filmmaker of real class.
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GREGOR JORDAN INTERVIEW by David Edwards
BUFFALO SOLDIERS (MA)
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena
PRODUCER: Rainer Grupe, Ariane Moody
DIRECTOR: Gregor Jordan
SCRIPT: Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby, Gregor Jordan (book by Robert O'Connor)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Oliver Stapleton
EDITOR: Lee Smith
MUSIC: David Holmes
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Steven Jones-Evans
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 21, 2003
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: BVHE
VIDEO RELEASE: December 10, 2003