| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
The military in
peacetime is boring, muses Ray Elwood, the irrepressible main character in Buffalo
Soldiers, a funny, sometimes biting satire set on an American army base in West
Germany in 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the movie is anything but
dull, particularly the amusing setup. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Elwood, an endearingly
opportunistic supply clerk doing a bang-up job killing time while not in combat. The
unofficial king of the black market, hes a cool operator. If hes not selling
ripped-off, requisitioned floor polish to locals, he and his cohorts are cooking up
copious amounts of heroin for the evil head of the military police.
Elwood stocks his quarters with the latest in electronics, and his pals
don Rolex watches. (In a telling voice-over narration at the beginning, Elwood makes a
point of saying that many of his fellow soldiers would have been inmates if they
hadnt joined the service.) But life is good. Spouting "yes, sir," with
enough sympathy to earn him an acting award, Elwoods got his stunningly clueless
commander (Ed Harris) firmly under his thumb, and his commanders crusty, and lusty,
wife (Elizabeth McGovern) in his bed.
His fortune changes when a by-the-book new sergeant (Scott Glenn) comes
to town, and the guy's not messing around. He smashes up Elwoods big-screen TV,
makes Elwoods shiny car the target at shooting practice, and sticks him with a nerdy
roommate, Knoll (the chameleon-like Gabriel Mann, almost unrecognizable from his roles in Josie
and the Pussycats and The Bourne
But Elwood is up to the challenge, so much so that he even goes for the
sergeants cute, tough daughter (Anna Paquin). So far, so good. Director Gregor
Jordans depiction of the duplicitous or often dumb -- U.S. forces offers a
welcome counter (and antidote to) the pro-military climate in todays America. That
view alone is reason enough to enjoy the film, whose release was delayed for a couple of
years due to political constraints. Buffalo Soldiers screened at the
Toronto Film Festival in September of 2001 and was scheduled to open widely soon after.
But it was pulled from distribution in the wake of 9/11 and didnt get shown
again until this years Sundance Film Festival.
Much of the dark comedy works; a scene with a couple of stoned soldiers
in a tank taking out some gasoline pumps (and people) is amazingly funny. Phoenixs
appealing, low-key performance keeps the movie rolling along we really love this
charming scoundrel but the films snowballing plot contrivances dull the
satire. The coming together of the love story, Elwoods rivalry with the sergeant,
and a complicated, time-sensitive deal involving millions of dollars of stolen weapons,
unrefined heroin and foreign drug traders doesnt entirely gel.
Still, the ultimate payoff works well. In the end, screenwriters Eric
Axel Weiss, Nora Maccoby and Jordan who based their story on a book by Robert
OConnor - tell a vivid contemporary American tale that hasnt been told before.
- Leslie Katz