Buffalo Soldiers (15)
No wonder the US authorities got antsy about director Gregor Jordan’s subversive story of soldiers on the lam and scam – there is little to do with loyalty, honour or love of the flag to be seen in Buffalo Soldiers.
Far from it, in fact. Instead of the bovine patriotism we see in most pictures based on or around the US military this one has only one salute in mind: the two-fingered variety, and it’s aimed squarely at Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty.
Set in West Germany shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall Buffalo Soldiers focuses on the decidedly non-military activities of Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix, River’s little brother and the family member continuing to carry the flag of acting greatness).
Under the nose of an oblivious commanding officer (Ed Harris playing against type as a weak, non-combatant desk wallah) Elwood has his fingers in a variety of sticky – and very lucrative – pies. Be it drug-dealing or gunrunning, Elwood has it sewn up on his base.
And he doesn’t care who gets affected. If someone’s in the way of a profit, that someone takes a dive. Sergeant Bilko he ain’t. He’s a liar, a cheat and a manipulative loner – a praying mantis in uniform with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step.
Things takes a turn for the negative when a hard-ass veteran sergeant (Scott Glenn, tight-lipped and mean and leathery as a rattlesnake) arrives on the base and immediately cottons on to Elwood’s fun and games. Before long both men are locked together in a game of one-upmanship, and there can be only one winner.
Throw in a cabal of black MPs who want their cut, and Elwood’s burgeoning romance with the sergeant’s daughter (Anna (X-Men) Paquin, the film’s conscience) and the lad has his hands full.
With its frequent scenes of corrupt soldiers, bent police and gangsters from all corners of the globe Buffalo Soldiers is like taking the Stars and Stripes and burning it. The American right-wing certainly didn’t appreciate a film like this on release as the country geared up for war, but it is unveiled in the UK at exactly the right time, as the focus and meaning of the war is questioned and both Bush and Blair come under ever closer scrutiny.
In Jordan’s hands the film becomes a damning indictment of both military rigidity and the tribalism it engenders. It also raises Elwood to the position of hero – an unheard-of act in ‘straight’ dramas where villains are villains and soldiers are never anything less than walking, talking embodiments of truth, justice and The American Way.
In Phoenix Jordan has chosen perfectly. He is at once naïve and cocksure, youthful and old beyond his years, softhearted and hard as nails. After all his scams and schemes he’s the one audiences are rooting for as the movie builds to its finale, and that’s just what Jordan wanted.
A beautiful and blackly comic satire, which makes it both a must-see and a rarity.
Star rating: ****