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Buffalo Soldiers briefly surfaced for a short while when released in 2003, although it never really received either a wide or lengthy cinematic distribution in the UK. It was brought out when Miramax was a little more wayward and liked to think they were providing a real alternative, before it’s breakaway from Disney and possible future had to be contended with. Being an anti-establishment flick that takes on the US army, coming out at a time when the world was following said force to war probably wasn’t going to do the film any favours, but it was still very much overlooked by the public eye. Now that time has passed and we can turn to the DVD, how does it fare?

Buffalo Soldiers
Film
We’re dropped straight into Western Germany through bomb-bay doors—falling with a sleeping Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) as he experiences his recurrent dream. It’s an opening sequence that evokes the famous bomb drops of Dr. Strangeglove and so sets the irreverent tone of the film. Elwood’s narration introduces us to his character and his raison d’être. He’s an antihero who plays the system for all he can get as the cocky fixer on the Theodore Roosevelt US Army Base, Stuttgart, in 1989. Looking for distractions and opportunities he has taken advantage of the fight-less setting where there are “soldiers with nothing to kill but time.” Skimming accounts and sleeping with his commander’s wife isn’t enough for Elwood. He also makes a sizeable living cooking up morphine to make smack to sell onto the base’s brutal dealers.

Elwood’s is a steady life on the base where he trades off the bored existence of others to just about keep his own complacent ennui at bay. When two spanners fall into his works it is symptomatic of his confidence that Elwood tries to turn them both to his profit whilst not really comprehending what he’s getting into. Firstly, when an unlikely windfall lands him with a truckload of guns, he upgrades to illegal arms dealer; and, secondly, when the diamond-tough Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives on base to root out corruption, Elwood promptly dates his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) to really get him riled.

Buffalo Soldiers
Various episodic incidents ensue, shot through black humour, satire and cynicism as Elwood and friends learn about playing with the bigger fish in the pond, while the Berlin Wall falls in the background. Australian director Greg Jordan (of dubious Ned Kelly and the Bongwater fame) co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Axel Weiss and it’s a determined mix of druggy humour, brutal violence, death, corruption, mistrust, affection, revulsion and incompetence. Based on the 2001 book by Robert O’Connor, one can’t help but think that such a potion of acid-etched satire may have been better suited to the page where the writer can paint a broader picture of the military institution and people that are in its sights. On screen, Jordan almost forces the point too much in an effort to get it all in.

There are still some choice moments, such as Ed Harris’ turn as a wonderfully incompetent and deluded Col. Berman and Glenn’s sadistic sergeant is malice personified. They’re complemented by some scenes of alternative humour, such as the tank manoeuvres whilst completely whacked on drugs and using Elwood’s car as target practice. But other scenes, such as troops marching over the Stars and Stripes, soldiers wondering whether they’re in East or West Germany and the drug-fuelled violence of the denouement, are coarse in comparison. Jordan paints his irreverence large. He continually pokes fun at the US army and there are a number of riffs on how the mottos of ‘be all you can be’ and codes of honour and valour, etc are shown to be non-existent or truly warped in the working world of the military base.  Everyone is shown to be to blame or in some way responsible, from the incompetent leaders to the inhumane and immoral troops they fail to lead. This is perhaps best shown by the self-serving Elwood helping rival Col. Marshall cheat during an exercise, ultimately ending Berman’s military career. But with everybody dislikeable and treacherous to some extent, we’re not really left with anyone to root for or care about. The throwaway attitude to the brutal violence meted out to some of the characters doesn’t help us with this either. It’s because we’re kept detached that Buffalo Soldiers doesn’t provide the emotional engagement that similar fare such as M.A.S.H. or Catch 22 can (or even the more modern Three Kings for that matter). Throughout most of the piece it seems that Jordan is satirising both the Individual and American Army in equal measure, leaving nothing to chance and not quite getting both.

Buffalo Soldiers
It’s finally left to Elwood to conclude with Nietzsche, “In times of peace, the war-like man will attack himself. There’s always a war, somewhere with somebody, there is no peace.” The real cynical satire lies in his seeming to understand that, right or wrong, this is what people are going to do. When they’re not attacking an enemy, they’re going to attack each other. So he’s not going to stop, just going to learn how to do it a bit better next time. It’s fairly fatalistic and leaves us with a grimly humorous film that seems to lack some of the heart it mocks its protagonists for not having. It’s not that fulfilling, but is still an enjoyable, if slightly miss-fired, hour and a half of cheerfully bitter reflection.

Given the global-political climate in which Buffalo Soldiers was made, its gallows humour slant could invest it with sleeper potential as a disc to be returned to in the future. Although set in 1989, it has much to say about the values behind current conflicts and may well be looked back on as a lone shout of dissent in a time when most didn’t want it to be heard.

Video
The single layer disc has is a widescreen version with a 2.35:1 presentation. This is an effective transfer where an unvaried palette of colours is uniformly maintained throughout, where delineation and strong definition remain. This helps recreate the bleakness of barracks life, while the grimly realised neon scene of the late 80s evokes the cold alienation of being an out of place American in Germany. I didn’t experience any problems with grain or blacking during any of the film’s number of nightscape or darkened scenes.

Buffalo Soldiers
Audio
The 5.1 English soundtrack is put to good use at regular moments, but not for anything subtle. Helicopter flybys make convincing use of the surrounds, as do various shots of the renegade tanks thundering around, all benefiting from a decent subwoofer kicking. There are few scenes of military action to speak of, but the select explosions and fires rumble the basses appropriately, whilst the limited gunplay also benefit from light surround use, but it’s nothing radical. Elwood’s mono-tonal narration may lack of emotion but it’s consistently well placed before the viewer.
There are some great tunes on the soundtrack, with Public Enemy (Fight the Power) to New Order and De La Soul all sounding good. David Holmes has done sterling but subdued work in between the classics to keep things cool and slinky. There are hard of hearing subtitles in English.

Extras
There are no extras, but the disc does have one interesting quirk. Following a series of tedious Pathé trailers, there’s a very short claymation from Fruticup Films called Leunig, or rather ‘How Democracy Works’. Narrated by Sam Neill, it’s on for less than a minute but adroitly sums up the satirical tone of the movie that follows.

I couldn’t help but think that this disc would have benefited from a little more exposition from Jordan or even a featurette giving some context in relation to O’Connor’s book. It would have given the satire more bite to go with its bark. (This March's release does include a director's commentary and behind the scenes footage, so hopefully this has since been addressed.)

Buffalo Soldiers
Overall
As a film Buffalo Soldiers never quite delivers on its promise to put the boot in all the way. Jordan wants Elwood to march alongside Hawkeye and Yossarian, but he hasn’t got it in him. As a disc, the transfer’s all well and good and the extras basically non-existent, which makes it slim and very disappointing. Again, you get the feeling that it’s been deliberately overlooked. It’s not the best film out there but it’s got a place to be recognised amongst the straight-laced, conservative swashbucklers. Whether or not that place is in your DVD collection is up to you.


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