Buffalo Soldiers


Directed by: Gregor Jordan
Written by:Gregor Jordan, Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glen, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern
Released: August 21, 2003
Grade: A

West Germany, 1989.  Military clerk Ray Elwood (Phoenix) smoothly runs a black market operation from within his quarters at the American Army base.  There’s no war on but Ray couldn’t care either way.  His father forced him to enlist so that he could avoid a six month jail sentence for car theft.  As Ray so eloquently phrases it – “war is hell, but peace is boring.”

Through a supplier in town, he obtains the ingredients and then manufactures drugs in a building on base.  His main customers are his fellow comrades who float around the camp and often perform duties whilst stoned.  The base leader is Colonel Berman (Harris) who is oblivious to what goes on and Ray has him wrapped around his little finger.  When an autopsy on a dead soldier shows traces of everything from heroin to estrogen, Ray still manages to convince the Colonel it’s a rare exception and that he does a stellar job leading the troops.  It’s like something out of Hogan’s Heroes.

At first glance, Buffalo Soldiers looks like an undemanding comedy but a darker layer emerges when Sergeant Lee (Glenn) arrives to straighten things out.  He’s a Vietnam veteran who loves exercising his authority to keep a strict regime of discipline.  Lee immediately suspects Ray of underground activities and his actions provide a stern warning that it’s time to fly straight.

In a moment of innocent stupidity, Ray decides to irritate Lee by lining up a date with his young daughter, Robyn (Paquin).  He’s upfront with Robyn and says that he’s only using her to get back at her father but the two find similarities in each other’s rebelliousness and there’s true romance in the air.  Usually the joker, Ray now finds himself is a position of serious trouble.  An incredibly large drug shipment is due to arrive and it’ll never get past Lee’s unrelenting eyes.  He tries to renege on the drug deal but his contacts threaten death if he doesn’t deliver.  All he wants now is Robyn but he’s stuck in a lose-lose situation that’s spiralling to an inevitable conclusion.

Ray Elwood is a very interesting character and a first-rate decision was made to cast Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) in the role.  His care-free personality combined with softly-spoken demeanour enable us to see the transformation from a guy having a little fun to a guy having his life shattered.  He’s not the only actor delivering a fine performance.  I’ve become so accustomed to the cliché of hard and demanding military leaders that seeing Ed Harris play the exact opposite provide as a great surprise.  There’s great chemistry between Oscar winner Anna Paquin (X-Men) and Phoenix.  They share two great scenes (one in a nightclub and one on a diving board) that show how to bring realistic freshness to screen romances.

I’m a fan of any film which draws attention to the stupidity of Americans and the screenplay, based on Robert O’Connor’s book, does just that.  The film was made over two years ago but the release was delayed as it was seen to be in bad taste after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I should be thankful we’re seeing the film at all because it deserves to be ranked as one of the year’s best.

There’s an Australian connection in that the director is 35-year-old Gregor Jordan.  Jordan’s very first feature, Two Hands, won five Australian Film Industry Awards including best picture, best director and best director.  His overnight success saw him presented with a flood of scripts and he wisely chose Buffalo Soldiers as his anticipated follow-up.  This year’s Ned Kelly (starring Heath Ledger) was his third film but I think we’ll just pretend that never existed.  Two out of three ain’t bad.