3 stars (out of 4)
Gregor Jordan's "Buffalo Soldiers" takes place in a different era and plays like it was made in one, too. In a sense it was: This sharp-edged satire premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2001, three days before a cataclysm that would destroy any nationwide appetite for irreverence toward the U.S. military.
But even before Sept. 11, not many mainstream filmmakers were trading in such black humor and politically charged sardonicism. David O. Russell's "Three Kings" (1999) is about the only recent film that played in a similar ballpark, and even that movie - a box office disappointment, by the way - ended on a heroic note.
"Buffalo Soldiers," based on Robert O'Connor's 1992 novel, is more like a product of the late '60s/early '70s the-lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum era of filmmaking. Its most obvious antecedents are Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" and "Catch-22" (Joseph Heller's novel more than Mike Nichols' film), but more generally it adheres to the whole post-Vietnam countercultural distrust of authority and institutions - sometimes provocatively, sometimes glibly.
The movie's antihero is an Army clerk named Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), stationed in 1989 peacetime Berlin, who deals weapons and Mop & Glo on the black market and cooks heroin for the base's kingpin drug dealer. He's got himself a sweet setup - his barracks resemble a gadget-loaded apartment - but his motivation isn't merely materialistic.
At this point the army is, as he puts it, comprised of "criminals and high-school dropouts trained to kill." Elwood himself chose military service over prison when given the choice after a misdemeanor offense.
"Peace is boring," he gripes, and if the world isn't going to provide intrigue and action, he'll supply it himself. He's apparently not the only one who feels this way. Just about everyone on the base is working some angle or other, from scamming enlisted men to colonels trying to outflank one another for promotions to the newly arrived, steely Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn), who makes shutting down Elwood's operation his personal mission.
Elwood is not happy about the tough-guy crackdown, but what the heck - he starts asking out Sgt. Lee's daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) just to raise the ante. Let the war games begin.
No one here is on-the-surface sympathetic, yet you're drawn to Elwood, in part because Phoenix gives perhaps his most charismatic performance to date. The actor's understated style melds well with a character who treats life like a high-stakes poker game, one in which he plays his cards close to his chest while his eyes calculate the odds for his next play.
Elwood may be a scoundrel, but he's a self-aware scoundrel who's mostly honest about his crookedness. When Robyn asks whether he's dating her to tick off her father, he pleads guilty with no protest - which just intrigues her more. (She knows, and she knows he knows, that her father is truly a psychopath who shouldn't be crossed.)
The movie's position is that Elwood, who is more cynical than nihilistic, is made for this particular army, while his straight-arrow superior, Colonel Berman, is not. Ed Harris plays the colonel as if his "The Right Stuff" version of John Glenn had grown up to become an ineffectual Boy Scout.
Harris' performance is highly comical in a dignified way; you feel for this guy but can't help but laugh at his efforts to impress the jaded general (Dean Stockwell) by touting his own obscure military ancestry. That kind of buttering-up might work in a firm populated by naive, well-intentioned folks, but in the army, such tactics just get you routed.
Scott Glenn, another "Right Stuff" alum, keeps the fierce Sgt. Lee from turning into a caricature as well. Lee, a Vietnam vet, enjoys the battle at least as much as Elwood, and he's far more experienced in brutality.
"Buffalo Soldiers" has drawn much flak regarding its negative portrayal of the military, although it's rooted in a world far removed from today's; the current army is of a different generation and orientation from that of the late '80s. What's more, this is a black comedy, so some exaggeration must be allowed.
That said, the movie's primary weakness lies in its relentlessness in pounding home its satirical points. The base is so out of control - at one point drug-addled soldiers cause explosions and deaths in a runaway tank with no one in authority apparently ever noticing - that you can understand complaints that the military is being painted with an awfully broad brush. At times "Buffalo Soldiers" verges on smug.
But the larger point is that Jordan, an Australian who shares the screenwriting credit with Eric Axel Weiss and Nora MacCoby, views the making of war to be a corrupt business. Such a stance may not be popular at a time when peace signs have been deemed unpatriotic, but if an artist can prompt audiences to think about such issues - and can find an entertaining way to do so - then more power to him.
And politics aside, "Buffalo Soldiers" is a well-told story. It pits a compelling central character against a formidable adversary in an intriguing setting while keeping you riveted to the cat-and-mouse strategizing, surprise turns and a few moments of actual warmth.
A sense of danger lingers in the air, which can be thrilling in itself during these days of cover-your-back filmmaking. You watch not knowing whether you'll next laugh or flinch. Sure, war is hell, but peacetime can be brutal.
Directed by Gregor Jordan; written by Jordan, Eric Alex Weiss, Nora MacCoby, based on the novel by Robert O'Connor; photographed by Oliver Stapleton; edited by Lee Smith; production designed by Steven Jones-Evans; music by David Holmes; produced by Rainer Grupe, Ariane Moody. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Aug. 8. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (violence, drug content, strong language, some sexuality).
Ray Elwood - Joaquin Phoenix
Col. Wallace Berman - Ed Harris
Sgt. Robert E. Lee - Scott Glenn
Robyn Lee - Anna Paquin
Mrs. Berman - Elizabeth McGovern
Garcia - Michael Pena