From the opening clips of John Wayne marshalling his all-white troops in the classic D-Day epic THE LONGEST DAY, it's clear that Spike Lee's important reminder of the so-called "Buffalo Soldiers" of the all-black 92 Infantry Division -- Americans of color who fought and died for their a country until the end of WWII -- has a bone to pick with the way the story has been told over the intervening years, particularly by Hollywood. And rightfully so. But while grateful for the history lesson, one wishes Lee's clunky adaptation of James McBride's celebrated novel was a much better movie.
New York City, 1983. At a Harlem post office, an elderly, bespectacled clerk inexplicably shoots a man after he asks to purchase a 20-cent stamp. The gun the clerk uses is a WWII-era German Luger. Baffled, Detective Tony Ricci (John Turturro) orders his men to search the killer's apartment where they find a Purple Heart and the head of the 450-year-old marble Primavera that once stood on Florence's Ponte Santa Trinita before the bridge was destroyed by German troops. Intrigued, cub reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) visits the shooter in the psych ward and convinces him to tell the story behind the Primavera's long-missing head -- and why he murdered a man in cold-blood.
Tuscany, Italy, 1944. After a disastrous attempt to cross the Serchio River that wends its way along the Gothic Line where deeply entrenched German troops have been battling Italian Partisan guerilla fighters, four black soldiers of the 92nd Infrantry Division find themselves stranded on the wrong side. Their predicament is largely the result of bigoted Lt. Claussen's (Ralph Palka) refusal to take seriously the word of "waiters and shoeshine boys" concerning their position, and now they're stuck with no way to go but forward. By the time Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Puerto-Rican Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and hulking Pfc Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) reach the tiny Tuscan village of Colognora, their ranks also include Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), the 8-year-old survivor of a terrible atrocity at the nearby village of St. Anna. For the past three years, Colognora has been under siege and most of the villagers -- with the exception of the fascist Ludovico (veteran Italian actor Omero Antonutti) -- are thrilled to see the Americans, regardless of their race. Angelo needs medical attention but as Ludovico's daughter, Renata (Omero Antonutti), warns them, the region is infested with German troops who are vigilantly searching for an AWOL German solider (Jan Pohl) and the renowned Partisan fighter Peppi Grotta (Pierfrancesco Favino), known locally as the "The Great Butterfly." And even if the way were clear, they're ordered to stay put by Lt. Claussen with whom they finally make radio contact. Claussen also orders them to capture and hold a German prisoner for interrogation, but soon after their job is done for them when Peppi and his fellow fighters arrive in Colognora with the AWOL POW in tow. Angelo, however, recognizes them both from what occurred at St. Anna.
This is first Lee's first attempt at a war epic, but it feels like it's his very first film: What should have been an eloquent answer to the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood -- with whom Lee justly took to task over the total absence of any black soldiers in THE FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS -- is instead a patchy war-time drama that only catches fire when it deals directly with Bishop's and Staples' conflicting views on what it means to risk their lives serving a country that still considers them no better than second-class citizens. The rest is filled with tin-ear dialogue, ham-fisted montage (they may be enemies, but they all pray to a Christian God), unintentionally laughable images, an amateurishly staged final shootout and inexplicable lapses. In a lengthy early scene, John Leguizamo is introduced as an American art dealer in Rome, but is never seen again. His total absence would have at least made this overlong film feel slightly shorter.
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