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Gregor Jordan
Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Leon, Gabriel Mann, Dean Stockwell
Writing Credits:
Robert O'Connor (book), Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby, Gregor Jordan

Steal all that you can steal ... A story so outrageous you couldn't make it up.

Joaquin Phoenix leads an all-star cast in a wickedly funny comedy that entertains in the edgy tradition of Pulp Fiction! A U.S. soldier with nothing to fight but boredom as the Cold War winds down, Ray Elwood (Phoenix) enjoys the rush of trading anything he can get his hands on in West Germany's booming black-market ... while his inept commander (Ed Harris) is none the wiser. Everything is perfect ... until he starts dating the new sergeant's daughter (Anna Paquin)! But before he can pull off one last big score, Elwood's escalating personal war with Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) will send him deeper into a deadly mess ... that may not have a way out!

Box Office:
$15 million.
Opening Weekend
$30.977 thousand on 6 screens.
Domestic Gross
$353.743 thousand.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 99 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 1/13/2004

• Audio Commentary with Director Gregor Jordan
• “Beyond the Iron Curtain” Featurette
• “Anatomy of a Scene” Documentary
• Sneak Peeks


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 26, 2004)

Back in 1970, the social situation left the military ripe for ribbing, which resulted in a classic film with M*A*S*H. That form of situation doesn’t exist in the early part of the 21st century. Criticism of the military receives a much colder reception, so projects of that sort become significantly riskier propositions.

This doesn’t mean that such programs won’t exist, and we get such a piece with 2001’s Buffalo Soldiers. Set at the Theodore Roosevelt US Army Base in Stuttgart, Germany during October 1989, Soldiers introduces us to Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), the battalion clerk. Cynical and sarcastic, Elwood runs a black market trade. He moves items as simple as Mop and Glo as well as drugs and whatever else he can get. Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) acts as the nominal head of the base, but he seems out of touch with the setting and his men. Driven by his wife Liz (Elizabeth McGovern), Berman mainly aspires to get promotions, and he doesn’t really seem to care what happens as long as it doesn’t reflect negatively on his record.

Elwood thrives within this laissez faire environment, and he even enjoys sexual trysts with Liz. Into this setting enters a new “top” for the squad, First Sgt. Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn). He exists mainly to make life difficult for Elwood. The latter tries to bribe his new boss but fails and resides firmly on the first sergeant’s bad side. When he meets Lee’s daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), he dates her mainly to irritate the first sergeant. This launches an ever-escalating war between the pair.

Another complication comes when some drugged-up soldiers go off-course during an exercise. They take a tank into the local streets and inadvertently blow up a gas station. This kills a pair of soldiers and leaves their transport trucks unattended. Elwood investigates and discovers the vehicles come laden with multitudes of serious weapons. Elwood decides to trot these onto the black market, an endeavor that occupies much of the rest of the flick. We watch those effects along with Elwood’s wooing of Robyn and his conflicts with Lee.

Originally slated for release in the fall of 2001, 9/11 delayed Soldiers and it didn’t finally hit screens until 2003. Even then it entered a heated political climate and received a very limited release slate. The film never played in more than 24 screens and made only $353,000. Would it have reached a more substantial audience in a different era? Possibly, but the sporadically compelling flick doesn’t seem strong enough for its lack of financial success to feel like a disappointment.

Soldiers owes a significant debt to flicks like M*A*S*H and Catch-22, but it fails to cut nearly as deeply, mainly because it loses its nerve. The flick begins as intensely dark and cynical, and elements of those attitudes periodically resurface after the first act. However, it starts to turn more farcical after a while and alternates uncomfortably between the two tones.

These fail to blend smoothly, which gives the movie a herky-jerky feel. The introduction of Lee brings it into a more conventional course. After that point, the flick becomes mostly about their battles and largely lacks the darkness of the earlier scenes. Instead, we get comic moments such as the one in which the squad – and Elwood himself – have to shoot up Elwood’s car. This seems like a form of broad slapstick that doesn’t really match with the edginess of the film’s first act.

The introduction of Robyn also lends Elwood a warmer and more human side. Normally, I’d regard the expansion of a character as a good thing, but here it detracts from the story’s success. Again, it makes the film more conventional and takes away from the earlier roughness. We know that Elwood’s a bad guy overall, but the movie starts to depict him as more of a lovable rogue than a truly selfish and nasty piece of work.

The story itself also meanders. In the early scenes, it feels like we’ll get an exposé of sorts on the nature of the modern military. Not that I expect the movie to become truly realistic, but it appears to want to look at the flaws inherent in the current system. Unfortunately, it gradually turns into more of a mystery than anything else, and it eventually meanders into almost sentimental melodrama.

All those elements undercut the parts of Buffalo Soldiers that could have made it special. The movie enjoys an excellent cast, and all do competent work. Unfortunately, they don’t get to serve much of a story, and the inconsistent tone of Soldiers makes it fairly ineffectual.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus B-

Buffalo Soldiers appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though a few complications arose, mostly the movie looked very good.

Overall, the image presented positive sharpness. A smidgen of softness interfered with a couple of wide shots, but those elements remained insubstantial. Instead, the majority of the flick came across as concise and detailed. No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, but edge enhancement caused some distractions; mild to moderate haloes popped up occasionally during the movie. Print flaws seemed minor. I noticed a few specks and bits of grit but nothing significant.

Since the flick involved rather dour subject matter, it seemed appropriate that it used a fairly repressed palette. Army drabs dominated the day, and the film exhibited a good sense of these greens and other subdued tones. The blacks were dark and dense, and low-light shots mostly exhibited good delineation. A few shadows came across as somewhat dense, but they largely looked clear. Ultimately, Soldiers provided a positive presentation.

In addition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 seemed satisfying. Not surprisingly, the soundfield mostly stayed within the forward spectrum. Music exhibited good stereo separation, while effects created a solid sense of atmosphere. The movie usually seemed fairly subdued, and environmental elements dominated. Nonetheless, it offered more than a few opportunities for lively information, and it used those well. For example, when the tanks caused havoc in the town, they moved concisely across the spectrum. Surround usage also helped create a smooth tone and worked fairly well as reinforcement.

The film displayed generally fine audio quality. Speech occasionally seemed a little flat, but the lines mostly came across as distinctive and crisp, with no edginess or other concerns. Music was fairly bright and dynamic, and the score and songs demonstrated reasonable range. Effects sounded clear and accurate. When appropriate, they packed a good punch. In sequences with elements like explosions, the bass was a little boomy but mostly seemed tight and powerful. In the end, Soldiers provided an effective soundtrack.

This DVD presents a short list of supplements. We open with an audio commentary from director Gregor Jordan, who offers a running, screen-specific discussion. A spotty affair, Jordan mostly touches on nuts and bolts issues. He gets into locations, effects, and stunts along with a few comments about the actors, the original novel, factual background for the setting and the era, and changes made from the script. He helps illustrate some elements of the flick fairly well, but he also falls back on perfunctory praise and blandness at times. In addition, Jordan goes silent for quite a few stretches, especially during the film’s second half; the dead air becomes especially noticeable at that time. All in all, this comes across as a pretty mediocre commentary.

Next we get a short featurette called Beyond the Iron Curtain. In this four-minute and 54-second piece, we hear from director Jordan plus actors Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Elizabeth McGovern, Dean Stockwell and Anna Paquin. We also see some shots from the set and movie snippets, but this program stays with the promotional side of things as it touts the flick. It’s not very interesting.

For a more substantial program, we head to the Sundance Channel’s Anatomy of a Scene. The 24-minute and 19-second show includes comments from director Jordan, author Robert O’Connor, editor Lee Smith, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, production designer Steven Jones-Evans, special effects supervisor Gerd Feuchter, and actor Joaquin Phoenix. As with other pieces in the “Anatomy” series, this one offers some information about the project as a whole but largely delves into the creation of one specific segment. We see the part with the drug-addled tank ride and go through finding the locations, production design, cinematography, and editing. The “Anatomy” shows always seem informative and insightful, and this one follows suit with a lot of useful material.

Finally, the Sneak Peeks area includes some ads. We find promos for Daddy and Them, Open Range, My Boss’s Daughter, and Chump Change. The trailer for Soldiers itself doesn’t appear on the DVD.

Somewhere buried beneath this erratic flick, a good theme and story reside. Unfortunately, Buffalo Soldiers only intermittently presents an engaging piece of work. It can’t decide if it wants to be M*A*S*H or Stripes, so it fails to provide a coherent film. The DVD offers reasonably good picture and sound along with a small roster of extras highlighted by a fairly bland and a decent documentary. While not a bad flick, Buffalo Soldiers nonetheless feels like a disappointment.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.125 Stars Number of Votes: 16
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