For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.
"You ship 400 000 trained killers over to some foreign land better give them a war " Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) quips. "War is hell but peace? Peace is boring." Set in 1989 at Theodore Roosevelt Army Base just outside of Stuttgart West Germany Elwood like most of the men at the base are there out of military servitude: the army serves as a reasonable alternative to a prison sentence. Elwood occupies his time by selling products like Mop'N'Glo on the black market and cooking heroin for the base's head of Military Police Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahumd-Bey). But when Elwood literally stumbles on about $5 million worth of weapons he thinks he can finally retire--until a new base sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) sets his sights on cleaning up the base. Elwood gets back at Lee by sleeping with his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) but Lee has more sinister plans for the battalion secretary. Based on the 1993 novel by Robert E. O'Connor Buffalo Soldiers graphically illustrates rampant drug use and criminal activities that the author describes as a bad patch in the Army's history in the late 1980s. Although the film's depiction of events has been called into question its explicit scenes including one in which some soldiers take a hit of smack and drive their tank over some gas pumps and fry two officers in the process are harshly persuasive. Buffalo Soldiers is a haunting look at a military that is at war--with itself.
Phoenix has churned up scores of strong performances in the past including roles in To Die For The Yards and Gladiator--which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Roman emperor Commodus. With the role of Elwood in Buffalo Soldiers he once again gets to show off his remarkable range. Phoenix shows conviction as a bureaucratic con artist by day and drug dealer by night. But just when you think his character has no scruples he begins to care about his sniveling roommate sticking up for him when base bullies harass him and cleaning up his cuts when he gets beaten up. And even though he starts off dating Robyn to piss off her father his motives change once he gets to know her. Phoenix's Elwood plays his cards close to his chest; we can never tell if he really wants to change for the better or just wants Robyn to believe that he does. There is something we like about him either way as does Robyn. Paquin's Robyn is young rebellious and incredibly sharp. She has grown up on a military base and has become an expert at figuring people out which makes her a perfect match for Elwood. Does she change this antihero for the better? You will have to see the movie to find out.
Miramax Films acquired Buffalo Soldiers at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10 2001--the day before the terrorist attacks radically changed public opinion on the American military's role. With the tagline "Steal All You Can Steal " the film was bound to set off sparks. Fearing moviegoers would view the film's release as inappropriate the studio shelved it until now. Helmed by Australian director Gregor Jordan Buffalo Soldiers does not paint a pretty portrait of the U.S. Army; there is plenty of gritty imagery of soldiers shooting up heroin juxtaposed against familiar slogans like "Be All That You Can Be." Whether you believe Jordan's take on the subject matter to be accurate or not the film is not as anti-military as it has been made out to be. Jordan's two extreme perspectives effectively illustrate the connection O'Connor makes in his novel between the century-old Buffalo Soldiers a term used to describe the freed slaves employed by the Union Army to wipe out the native population in the 1800s and the movie's uniformed dregs stationed in West Germany at the fringe of the Cold War era: Neither group had anything to gain from fighting. In the film Elwood and company have an even harder time dealing with the boredom that comes from being idled by peace thus rekindling their delinquent tendencies. The U.S. Army in Buffalo Soldiers is in effect representative of a society or a subculture set in a greedy decade that operates under its own rules and values and Jordan's screenplay gets this point across without ever preaching to the audience.