The movie tells the story of four African-American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II. Here, we have a potentially great director taking on an interesting and provocative subject: the mistreatment of African-American soldiers during war. Who wouldn't expect this movie to obliterate the sort of stereotypes that Spike Lee has always decried in movies (see his very good Bamboozled)? The epic scope of the film is also something Lee should be able to handle (see Malcolm X).
But, wow ... what a miserable mess this is. It wants to be a war movie, a mystery, a love story and a strange sort of comedy, all while portraying the despicable way that African Americans have been treated in the military. It fails on almost every level, thanks to hammy acting, terrible writing and one of the most distracting soundtracks I've ever heard.
The film starts off in 1983 with post-office worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) taking out a German Luger and blowing away a customer during a transaction. Detectives search Hector's apartment and discover the head of a statue, long missing from a bridge in Italy. Hector is soon visited at the police station by plucky reporter Tim Boyle (the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt, stinking up the joint), and he starts to tell a story ... a really long and boring story about a miracle.
Having seen the movie, I still don't know what the miracle is.
The story jumps to Italy in '43, where the Buffalo Soldiers are crossing a river. There's a really big soldier named Train (Omar Benson Miller), a superstitious fellow who is carrying the same statue head discovered in Hector's apartment 40 years later. (He rubs it vigorously for good luck.) Hector is there, as are Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy). They're walking and chatting--and then the bullets start to fly.
Cue the awful music. Terence Blanchard, a decent musician but a lousy score composer, mucks up yet another Lee film with his distracting musical choices. As soldiers die, Blanchard's music overwhelms the proceedings rather than backing them up. It's so bad that it's funny--and I suspect I'm not supposed to be laughing while soldiers die onscreen.
After the battle scene (which might've been good had somebody shut off the tunes), the soldiers wind up screwing around for an interminable amount of time in the woods and then some village. They pick up a bratty kid who calls Train "a chocolate giant" and tries to lick him. They haul the kid around with them, and they fight over a hot girl named Renata (Valentina Cervi). Oh lord, it's really bad.
The movie has one good scene: In a flashback, the soldiers stop off in a Southern U.S. ice cream parlor for a snack, where the racist proprietor is feeding sundaes to Nazi prisoners (just how Nazi prisoners wind up in a Southern ice cream parlor is beside the point, but anyway ...), but he refuses to serve the black soldiers. Spike interrupts the scene with a shot of the four soldiers back in Italy, looking straight into the camera, walking away disgusted, one at a time.
It's a great moment, and the sort of thing I expected for the movie's full running time. Sadly, this scene only takes up a few minutes, but it proves that the great Spike Lee still exists. Unfortunately, the bad Spike Lee directs the rest of the film.