Buffalo Soldiers

August 21st, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

We don’t live in liberal times anymore. The days of partying baby boomers amid an orgy of Clintonian economic plenty are over. The world today is decidedly more jittery — characterised by ethnic profiling, closed borders and armed guards on passenger jets.

Among everything else that’s changed since the conservative right wing swept into power across the world at the end of the 20th century is the way movies are made and sold to audiences.

More so than in any other period in history, the last couple of years has seen more movies (and trailers) shelved, frantically recut or held off only to die quietly. The World Trade Centre Towers in the original Spider Man teaser are virtually folklore.

Among the subjects deemed ‘off limits’ by the PC police is anything about American soldiers in a light that didn’t portray them as professional and heroic. Want proof that this is a 21st century phenomenon? Imagine if they tried to release Stripes right now, with its depiction of American soldiers (led by Bill Murray) as lazy goofballs screwing their way around Communist Europe.

Which is why filmmaker Gregor Jordan finished making cinematic fable Buffalo Soldiers in July 2001 and it’s taken this long to get an Australian release. In that time, he’s managed to make and release another entire film (Ned Kelly).

You imagine Jordan would be seething at the politics that’s scuppered such a big project for so long, but he seems strangely in agreement.

"It has been weird," he says, referring to the delay, "But then, I didn’t want the film to come out at the wrong time and be a disaster because people were too distracted or weren’t in the right mood to watch it."

And just what was so damaging about the film we had to wait two years to see it? Following the story of a US army base in West Germany, it shows a group of soldiers in advance stages of ‘peace fatigue’ — making and selling heroin, starting bar fights and misbehaving. Jordan didn’t set out to cast the US army in a bad light, but — as he explains — to explore the theme of warriors without a war.

"I just thought it was something really different," he says. "I’d never seen a film set in this kind of world before, and the idea behind it — of these soldiers who get up to no good because they’re so bored that there’s no war — was an idea I’d never seen before."

Buffalo Soldiers has been released in the US and the way Jordan tells it, it may still have been too early to let it out of the gate yet. "The response over there has been mixed," he says, "Some people have loved it and said ‘we’re just so bored with the same sanitised view of things’. Other people are deeply offended by it and have called the film an act of treason.

"A lot of Americans are a bit hysterical and unwilling to put up with any criticism or even an alternative view at the moment. It’s a bit scary, but those sorts of people seem to have a pretty loud voice. Certain people in America are deliberately boycotting Buffalo Soldiers because they consider it offensive, but unfortunately they’re the kinds of people who’d benefit the most from seeing it."

Asked about his future plans and more collaboration with good mate Heath Ledger, Jordan is positive about the future. "Heath and I are really good friends," he says, "After Two Hands we were always looking for something to do together — not every movie has a role for him, but Ned Kelly was great because saw it was perfect for Heath."

Jordan also says he’s going to tread carefully to avoid being swallowed up by the Hollywood machine and become another ‘gun for hire’ like promising Australasian filmmakers from Phillip Noyce to Lee Tamahori have in the past. "I got offered xXx 2 the other day and the money would be nice — those big budget Hollywood films pay well — but you ask yourself; do I really want to be making films like that? You spend so much time working on a film and if it’s not one you love, it’s not going to be that much fun."

It’s possible Jordan and Heath Ledger are each other’s good luck charm — without each other they’ve tended to flounder at times. Two Hands and Ned Kelly were both solid and entertaining, but The Four Feathers took a critical and box office battering, the upcoming Sin Eater is going through multimillion dollar special effects reshoots, and sadly, Buffalo Soldiers seriously misses whatever mark it was aiming for.

Because of the story behind the film itself, you wonder if Jordan or the studio caved in and reshot or recut an older version. The entire movie feels loose, choppy and poorly edited down from a much longer product. Either that, or it was a weak idea to begin with and happens to suffer poor execution.

Vital scenes or dialogue seems to have been left out explaining the motivation of the characters, because the film is half over when you realise you don’t know (or care) what half of them have to do with the story. In fact, more than once you’ll wish impatiently that it would get somewhere — being aware of the time passing during a movie is never a good thing.

It also doesn’t know what it wants to be. When a character’s head is caved in against the corner of a table playing indoor gridiron and nobody cares that he’s dead, or when a stoned tank crew run amok through a town market during training, you assume you’re watching a comedy.

But somewhere along the line the comedy evaporates and you’re watching an action movie and black comedy, then in the final stages it’s a thriller with an apparent message.

Joaquin Phoenix is an army clerk in the West German army base. Along with his colleagues, he’s sitting around waiting for action. The reason for the film is characterised in the early monologue; ‘War is hell, but peace if fucking boring.’

In between filing reports for his terminally nice CO (Ed Harris), he produces and sells heroin to other soldiers and civilians. When a creepy new sergeant (Scott Glenn) arrives, his whole operation is threatened. Subplots drift in and out of the story like a shocking knitting job — the new, nerdy kid who falls in with him, messing with the creepy sergeant by falling for his daughter (Anna Paquin) and the plight of Harris as the useless base commander — and do nothing to add to what the story is saying (whatever it is).

Ultimately, Buffalo Soldiers is hollow and pointless. Much of the comedy isn’t funny because we don’t know when to suspend disbelief, and much of the drama isn’t emotional because it’s hard to muster up any concern for such a bunch of low lives whether you’re a patriotic American or not.

While Jordan can handle both a camera and big Hollywood names, Buffalo Soldiers has little entertainment value on the surface and nothing to say deeper down. Go and hire Stripes instead — it’s the same story, much better told.

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