Kept on a shelf at Miramax for two years to avoid cries of anti-Americanism in the wake of September 11, Buffalo Soldiers is finally seeing release outside its first showing at the Toronto International Film Festival. Set against the backdrop of the crumbling Berlin Wall, the film depicts soldiers behaving very badly and is evidently not for those without a sense of humour, or for those who value their time spent in a theatre.
Between stacks of paperwork and special missions to pick up party supplies for dopey commanding officer Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), underachieving property clerk Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) makes extra dough as a black market ringleader, selling East German middlemen everything from low-grade spic-and-span knockoff to high-grade heroin. The whole operation is going smoothly until overbearing authority figure Sergeant Lee (Glenn Scott) shows up with his freewheeling daughter (played by a disconcertingly wooden lipped Anna Paquin), determined to put Elwood's dope smuggling days to an end.
When Elwood resists Lee's orders to stop trafficking drugs, opting instead to awkwardly bed the Sergeant's daughter in the back seat of a Mercedes Benz, Lee sets an escalating battle of wits into motion.
Things start off light and breezy, like a lost episode of Hogan's Heroes--I steal a Humvee and go for a joy ride, you blow up my car--but competition between the two men becomes more and more apocalyptic as the movie progresses. When people around Elwood start turning up dead, Buffalo Soldiers makes an unwelcome thematic U-turn.
Not satisfied with keeping the film's last hour fun to watch, director Gregor Jordan heaps on allegory by the truckload, apparently trying to construct a Vietnam film for the Fight Club set. Asking whether war really is more insane than peace in a clumsy, obtuse climax that involves more than one 10-storey high fireball and requisite footage of soldiers killing their own countrymen, Jordan poses the question with such "aw shucks" heavyhandedness that everyone in the audience will find themselves rolling their eyes at least once.
A deluge of third-act formalism does not a classic make, and as Buffalo Soldiers' narrative becomes less and less tethered to reality, its war-movies-for-beginners sensibility is presented with more and more childish awe, even though we've heard all these ideas a thousand times before--and from much more skilled directors.
In the end, what started as a fun romp through the underworld of bored soldiers mutates into a cumbersome beast of a film, insulting the viewers' intelligence to make sure that everyone "gets it."
Note to Mr. Jordan: there's a reason we stopped remaking the traditional anti-war movie and it wasn't because we hadn't seen enough of it.
Buffalo Soldiers opens this week at the Uptown Stage and Screen.