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Soldiers’ DVD shines harsh light on the reality of U.S. military

On Sept. 11, 2001, as director Gregor Jordan’s new film, Buffalo Soldiers, lay in a can on some Miramax executive’s desk, thousands of bodies lay in tombs of shattered glass and melted steel within the rubble of what used to be the World Trade Center.

And as U.S. troops took center stage to defend their country, Jordan and his new pals at Miramax realized that their bleak comedy/drama about the U.S. military’s fraudulent patriotism, in-house corruption and blatant drug problems would play to the masses as infuriatingly tasteless flag-burning. So in the can it would sit.

Two years later, Buffalo Soldiers would finally see a theatrical release — closely followed by last month’s quiet DVD release — which was marred with criticism from “patriotic” groups and praise (big surprise here) from independent film critics and fans.

But before Hollywood, and probably Miramax, try and drown this film off Tinsel Town’s coast, erasing it from American moviegoer’s minds forever, there is something that must be said. Buffalo Soldiers is a damn good film.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Ray Elwood, a military officer in charge of a battalion mixed with unpatriotic soldiers and greedy screw-ups that opted for military duty over jail time. The film takes place on a U.S. base in Germany in a late ’80s Cold War. The military is drained of armed forces enlistees — a problem which has been shored up by signing up criminals instead — due to the bad taste of Vietnam and the toll it took on American patriotism.

“No one wants to play for a losing team,” Elwood says at the beginning of Buffalo Soldiers.

Gee, this flick probably wasn’t a big hit with Republicans.

Elwood and his crew are living the good life, though, selling any and all Army surplus they can get their hands on.

These tasks are made all the more easy as Elwood plays right-hand-man to the base boss, the dim-witted Col. Berman (Ed Harris). But just as Elwood and the boys are about to make their biggest score, selling $5 million worth of stolen Army weapons, the new “Top,” Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn) transfers into town and starts breaking balls right away.

Sgt. Lee’s and Elwood’s power struggle — which includes Lee using Elwood’s Benz for target practice and Elwood banging Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin) — weaves through a storyline ornamented with soldiers cooking massive amounts of heroin, violent murders and bust-ups between battalions, leading to an explosive ending which sheds light on the true motives of Sgt. Lee and the character of Elwood.

Familiarly, the actual movie doesn’t benefit much from its DVD special features — save for the IFC “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette — but that should never be any film’s deciding point anyway.

While the movie is outstanding on various levels, the star actor’s performances cannot be counted among them. While Scott Glenn plays a great strict Sergeant., Joaquin Phoenix basically phones this one in for the most part, which is a disparity compared to his previous work in Gladiator and his future role as Mel Gibson’s bat-swinging brother in Signs. He does, however, play a great smarmy smart-ass in those scenes that accentuate Elwood’s demeanor, which is more than can be said for another rubbish Paquin performance.

Buffalo Soldiers showcases some great filmmaking instinct on the part of Jordan in only his sophomore directorial outing. He employs a David Fincher-esque, raw and grizzly blackness within an overall dreary, post-noir film style that works very well.

Jordan delivers 90 minutes of film that makes not only a declaration cinematic originality and style, but also an important statement about the violent and bleak realism of a military popularly perceived as flag-waving superheroes.