Buffalo Soldiers (***3/4)

(2001) Gregor Jordan – Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, etc.

Synopsis: Joaquin Phoenix is Ray Elwood, a shifty soldier stationed in Germany towards the end of the cold war. Elwood has his fingers deep in various black-market cookie jars and is doing fairly well for himself, particularly under the not-so-watchful eye of Col. Berman (Harris), who’s basically incompetent and insecure; towards the beginning of the film, he yells at Elwood and then immediately apologizes for his relatively mild outburst. Things become muddled when, through an absurd yet pointed confluence of events, Elwood and his ‘partners-in-crime’ stumble across two unattended truckloads of brand new weapons, what weapons Elwood immediately decides they should sell. Complexities abound when a new face shows up on base, sergeant Lee (Glenn), who’s highly suspicious of Elwood and his ilk. Then there’s Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Paquin), who complicates matters further, as does the (vaguely incompetent) political maneuvering of Berman and his wife.

Review: Not as provocative, funny, or tense as it could have been, this is still a pretty good movie that has some interesting things going on. The problem, maybe, being that there are too many things going on; that the movie isn’t entirely sure what it wants to do. The movie’s main point (according to the director)—that what happens to an army that’s not actively engaged in fighting a war is that the soldiers will find other, more personal, wars to fight—is somewhat muted by all the things that are going on in the movie, in fact. This movie wants to be darkly funny, it wants to be a serious drama, it wants to be a biting satire, it wants to have relevance, and so forth. And from time to time, it strays from the path, so to speak. It gets distracted by some minor element that it happens to find interesting. (Obviously the movie itself doesn’t have any say in this, but hopefully you know what I mean.) It wants to be funny, but not too funny. It wants to be dark, but not too dark. It wants to be pungent, but not too pungent. Etc. To the credit of those who made this movie, it’s a decent movie: the acting’s probably as good as it can be, the plot works (most times), the resolution isn’t horrible. The best way to sum up is to say that when it works, it’s a good flick, and when it doesn’t, it’s not bad, it’s simply somewhere between okay and mediocre. Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket it ain’t. For that matter, it’s no Good Morning, Vietnam, either. But it’s decent.

Rating: [•••¾] out of [•••••]