Spike Lee boxes outside of his directorial weight-class with a war story bogged down by ham-handed smacks of magical realism and over-pronounced examples of racial prejudice. Lee’s muddle of inappropriate camera angles, overemphasized exposition and overall inability to get beyond the scope of his source material makes this cinematic garment seem like it was made with a shortage of fabric.
James McBride’s script, based on his own novel, proves problematic in its attempt to create a believable fictionalized account of the experiences of a group of four Buffalo Soldiers fighting in the 92nd Infantry Division in Tuscany, Italy. The troops survive crossing a shallow river into enemy territory where they remain trapped with a group of Italian locals, unaided by their unit’s white commander who refuses to send in reinforcements. The group’s largest soldier Sam (Omar Benson Miller) has a knack for lugging around heavy things, like a decapitated statue head from a destroyed Italian bridge and a lost little Italian boy who Sam believes will keep his squad safe from harm. This is a war movie that’s all over the place. Its performances range from disappointing to mediocre in an overlong film that’s more likely to give you a headache than any sense of thematic resolve.
Spike Lee is not a natural storyteller, or even mindful of tapping naturalist qualities. His is a clinical cinema derived of misappropriated camera angles and lighting schemes, where the audience awaits its series of narrative face slaps that come here in the form of racism from the U.S. commanders and an incongruous flashback sequence that permanently disfigures the movie.
We know we’re in trouble when a low camera shot tracks down a long hallway toward a closed apartment door. It’s a Scorsese camera move that, in Lee’s hand, pushes toward horror-movie conventions. Brutal violence does arrive in the form of a career-veteran postal worker who pulls a military gun on a patron and kills the man on the spot.
So we shift from horror to mystery within a few beats before being plunged in with an infantry of Buffalo Soldiers slogging through enemy territory to the strains of Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) telling the troops their country doesn’t care about them but that Germany does. It’s a slick bit of wartime propaganda that rings truer as the black battalion is thinned out from fierce shelling by Nazi soldiers.
The movie takes a hard right turn in developing an unlikely buddy story between the oversized American soldier Sam and the little Italian boy Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Lee flirts with an Amelie brand of quirkiness in early scenes between the religiously committed Sam and the boy he views as a savior. Thankfully Lee abandons starry-eyed magic dust stuff, even if it’s only to overplay a silly romantic rivalry between Second Staff Sergeant Aubrey Banks (Derek Luke) and Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) for the attention of Italian beauty Renata (Valentina Cerri).
Some blame must be attributed to screenwriter/novelist James McBride for a bologna sandwich of a story, as well as to Terence Blanchard for an overtly bombastic musical score that’s akin to hearing a little boy cry wolf a few too many times. However it’s Lee who must assess his failure and do the right thing—retire. MTW