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, he’s a cool operator. If he’s 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 hadn’t joined the service.) But life is good. Spouting "yes, sir," with enough sympathy to earn him an acting award, Elwood’s got his stunningly clueless commander (Ed Harris) firmly under his thumb, and his commander’s 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 Elwood’s big-screen TV, makes Elwood’s 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 Identity).
But Elwood is up to the challenge, so much so that he even goes for the sergeant’s cute, tough daughter (Anna Paquin). So far, so good. Director Gregor Jordan’s depiction of the duplicitous – or often dumb — U.S. forces offers a welcome counter (and antidote to) the pro-military climate in today’s 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 didn’t get shown again until this year’s 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. Phoenix’s appealing, low-key performance keeps the movie rolling along – we really love this charming scoundrel – but the film’s snowballing plot contrivances dull the satire. The coming together of the love story, Elwood’s rivalry with the sergeant, and a complicated, time-sensitive deal involving millions of dollars of stolen weapons, unrefined heroin and foreign drug traders doesn’t 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 O’Connor – tell a vivid contemporary American tale that hasn’t been told before.
– Leslie Katz