Delayed after 9/11 because its unflattering portrayal of the American military might be deemed insensitive and unpatriotic, Buffalo Soldiers gets a similarly unwanted release amid the impending U.S.-Iraq conflict. Regardless of current events, however, director Gregor Jordan’s shallow treatise on army hypocrisy can’t shake the ghosts of M*A*S*H and Catch-22. Based on Robert O’Connor’s novel, the film concerns trouble-making Ray Elwood, a convicted felon who chose three years of service over three months in prison, and now runs a racketeering operation under the nose of his eccentric and clueless superior officer, Colonel Wallace Berman (Ed Harris). It’s 1989, Elwood is stationed in West Germany right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and his lucrative business thrives because his German customers are willing to buy virtually anything the soldier can procure in bulk. The film wants to make a statement about how, when soldiers are given no war to fight, they find new conflicts—both external and, echoing Nietzsche, internal—to occupy themselves with, but this dreary, familiar, and ultimately jumbled mess merely repeats what its more illustrious predecessors have already done, only less successful. Elwood is also involved in dealing heroin, and one of the film’s only inspired moments comes when three strung-out tank operators drive their vehicle through the town square and directly into a gas station’s highly flammable pumps, only to stupidly ask “Why are our monitors all yellow” once the station explodes around them. Conflict arises between our anti-hero and his new no-nonsense superior officer Sergeant Robert Lee (his name a symbol of tried-and-true American militarism), who 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). Yet after only 30 minutes, one gets the impression that the film hasn’t simply been sitting on the shelf since the World Trade Center attacks; it’s been undergoing massive changes in the editing room. The story becomes inadvertently elliptical when clarity should be its main objective, and thus the climactic showdown between Elwood’s supposedly rational insubordination and Lee’s bloodthirsty army loyalty comes across as hopelessly muddled. Joaquin Phoenix has a delicious time causing havoc as the conniving and charming Elwood, but the incompetent Buffalo Soldiers should have been left out on the range.
You won't see too much red, white and blue on this DVD transfer of Buffalo Soldiers, but what little there is sure looks great. Edge enhancement is present throughout but isn't very distracting. Skin tones are excellent and blacks are solid, contributing to an overall presentation that's very film-like. The Dolby Digital surround track isn't very aggressive but dialogue is clear and the occasional explosion comes through loud and clear.
Director Gregor Jordan's commentary track is largely anecdotal and it's an excellent one. He describes in expert detail how many of the scenes were conceived, and as such everything takes on a life of its own (he thought of the bomb metaphor while riding on an airplane and a friend gave him the idea for the flag on the ground the soldiers walk on). Though he's not a very lively fellow, his willingness to bring politics into the discussion is admirable. Major points for effortlessly incorporating an age-old quote by George Orwell into his commentary. Also included here is a politically-minded but standard-fare making-of featurette "Beyond the Iron Curtain," another top-notch "Anatomy of a Scene" from the folks at the Sundance Channel and Sneak Peeks for Daddy and Them, Open Range, My Boss's Daughter and Chump Change.
Regardless of current events, director Gregor Jordan's shallow treatise on army hypocrisy can't shake the ghosts of M*A*S*H and Catch-22.