Agony of Defeat

What's a buffalo soldier? Some quick research shows that these were members of the U.S. 9th and 10th Cavalries of the late nineteenth century, given the nickname by the Cheyenne and Comanche tribes for their fighting spirit. These were among the very few all-black regiments of the time, and were often given the worst assignments available. What does this movie have to do with this fact? Nothing so far as I can tell, unless you count the military setting, which doesn't quite cut it for me.

Instead, white bread Joaquin Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a calm, collected supply clerk in an American unit stationed in Germany. In his position, he is able to profit by putting supplies on the black market. He also dabbles in the drug business, refining heroin for an MP dealer on base. Elwood works closely with Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), who may be his superior, but seems to have attained the position more from being earnest than having leadership skills. Suffice it to say, Berman has no clue of Elwood’s activities.

Sergeant Robert Lee, an older, and again white, veteran of Vietnam, is transferred to the base, and immediately picks up a dislike to Elwood, suspecting him of misconduct almost immediately. Their personal war escalates quickly – Lee tears Elwood’s room apart and kicks in his television after being offered it as a bribe. Elwood takes out Lee’s daughter (Anna Paquin) in his fancy German car. The next day, Lee pulls Elwood out of bed to do target practice with a number of other soldiers – and the target is that same fancy German car.

There's another plotline where Elwood and his cronies deal a large number of guns they found themselves with (they never have dealt weaponry before). The payment is far more opium than they've ever cooked into heroin before. Because of some mysterious lost drops between Elwood and the base dealer, the scope of this deal raises tensions. Both plotlines come together at the end and blow up - literally - in an all too convenient way.

There are a lot of problems with this film, but one stands out above the rest - the emotions of our characters are never earned, even for what ought to be the simple things. Lee's hatred for Elwood, and the sudden love between Elwood and his daughter are crucial to believing the movie. The scenes where these are supposed to happen are very flat, merely giving us the information, rather than really letting us into the characters and what they are feeling. With such a critical misstep, everything else simply feels manipulative.

Edgy comedy is all the rage these days, and Buffalo Soldiers is doing its best to be a riot of irony without its characters actually knowing it. To a certain extent, it succeeds, and maybe it could have worked as a pure comedy - the pretensions of a real, heartfelt plot, simply get in the way.

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