Buffalo Soldiers  (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is a dark, satirical look at the peacetime activities of the U.S. Army in Germany just before the wall came down. It offers such a critical look at the Army that every main character turns out to be a swindler, a wimp, an idiot, a junkie, or a psychotic.

Talk about a cursed film.  This film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, three days before Sept 11, 2001.

As you may guess, the bottom immediately dropped out of the USA's market for material critical of America and the American military, and the film was flooded out of a country awash in fear, paranoia, defensiveness, and patriotism. Given the current political climate, Buffalo Soldiers almost seems to say to Americans, "now do you see why everyone hates you?" To this day (15 months after the Toronto screening) it had never been shown in a US theater before Sundance 2003, where it debuted to a mixed reaction.

Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is the company clerk for a U.S. supply base. Like Radar O'Reilly, he's really making most decisions for his colonel to rubber stamp, but he's not the benevolent Radar kind of clerk. He's the wheeling and dealing Milo Minderbinder (Catch 22) kind of black marketer. If there is anything which an Army can obtain, Elwood will hustle it up and sell it at a profit, his product assortment ranging from Mop 'n Glo to arms to heroin.

Most of Elwood's colleagues seem to be stoned half the time, and that's bad news for Germany when the colleagues in question are engaged in tank exercises, for example. We see the wacked-out GIs driving through beer fests, running over VWs, blowing up gas stations, and generally causing each other to die purposelessly. These deaths, of course, usually result in posthumous awards and medals, since the Army on view here is an institution which spins all news into a positive light and sweeps all problems under the rug.

When the lads aren't destroying Germany and killing each other, they manage to steal two trucks full of weapons, and Elwood is able to build this hijack into a mammoth deal for himself, involving a swap of the arms for 30 kilos of pure heroin.



The only real rain on Elwood's parade is a new straight-arrow top sergeant who immediately sniffs out the corruption on the base, and resolves to clean house, starting with Elwood. Since Elwood is a real bad-ass himself, he gives the battle with Top Sarge a real kick-start by deliberately screwing the man's daughter in a car outside his window. Of course, Top does not take this lightly, retaliates, and the two men thence engage in an ever-escalating personal battle.

Joaquin Phoenix brings his unusual presence to the role of Elwood. He doesn't seem tough enough, or smart enough for the role, but there is something very positive that results from the disconnection between his personality and the lines he is speaking. He makes Elwood seem like a wide-eyed college kid who fell into the wrong crowd and got in trouble scamming on campus, rather than like the hardened criminal he really is. That adds a lot of dimension and sympathy to a role that could have seemed like a complete dirtbag if played by another type of actor with a more obvious high level of weaselly intelligence, ala James Woods.

Since the honest Top is played with cold, psychotic brutality by Scott Glenn, their battles leave the audience at wit's end when it comes to choosing sides. Elwood is completely in the wrong, and the Sarge is completely incorruptible, yet Phoenix just seems so much more vulnerable and sensitive than Glenn that we are unable to root for Elwood's downfall.

Although screened at Sundance, the film is about as un-Sundance as anything you'll see there. It features Hollywood actors and a budget big enough to finance about 20 typical Sundance features. It resembles Hollywood movies in other ways. It features macho street confrontations, racial violence, guys waving guns and shouting at each other, car wrecks, and big, bad explosions. It also centers around contrived characters who are obviously movie characters rather than real people.

To be honest, I thought it was a good enough movie that it got me emotionally involved with the plots and characters, but it's a good movie in the Hollywood sense, not in the indie sense, and I'll be surprised if it ever manages a successful run at the American box office. The peacetime army may really have been like this, but the Sundance crowd is the wrong market for the macho stuff, even though the anti-military message may resonate. Away from the rarefied mountain air at Sundance, this is just the wrong time to market a big-explosion movie which maligns America and its military and seems to justify anti-American feelings overseas.

not yet in theaters in the USA or on home media

Too bad. It might have been a moderate hit if it had come out a year earlier.

The Critics Vote

  • iofilm: 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDb link. Voting results: IMDb voters score it a surprisingly high 7.5/10
  • Budget $15 million


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C+. It's a pretty good seriocomic film, but I don't know if it will find an audience.

Return to the Movie House home page