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Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Soldier's Story

The first few moments of A Soldier's Story were startling. Not in a "Holy crap, I'm on the edge of my seat", kind of way but in a "Oh no, what have I got myself into" kind of way. The beginning features a bunch of drunk people festively singing and dancing to a sub-par imitation of early soul music; fine I suppose but isn't this supposed to be a tense racially charged crime drama?

Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story tells the tale of Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) an army investigator sent to solve a murder case. As he begins to piece the mystery together things aren't quite as they seem. Or something like that.

After the rocky beginning the film's landscape begins to change. A drunk man, a gun and a murder introduce a meaty murder mystery that brings the alarmingly Mr. Tibbs-like Captain Davenport to the scene. Despite a prevailing sense of Deja Vu he was still and interesting man to watch and the setting was just different enough from In the Heat of the Night to keep me interested. Sure Jewison simply replaces the predominantly white South with the predominantly white military obstructing Mr. Tib...I mean Captain Davenport's quest for respect and the truth but at least he stole his ideas from a great movie. And since he directed In the Heat of the Night hasn't he earned the right to go back to the well?

He of course has, but I think that well is almost dry. Davenport's fight for respect is the only interesting thing about this movie. Rollins Jr. attacks the role and plays Davenport with a force that makes the supporting characters he interviews during his investigation seem weak. So weak that they effectively destroy the movie. Davenport's quest for the truth forces the viewer to endure seeemingly endless flashbacks designed to "show" us what really went down. What they really do, however, is showcase the voice of Patti Labelle, the questionable skills of a scrub-looking stickball team and some grating performances from the murderers and their victim. It's like cracking open the window near a dairy farm. We're getting a glimpse of something that's gross and smelly.

Ultimately the detective story here is well done. Davenport (a stereotype at this point) is well-played, engaging and lays the groundwork for an interesting procedural but every time a wall is built it is knocked down by a drunk buffoon stumbling on his lines.

4.0/10

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