Even if you don't know that Buffalo Soldiers was produced before Sept. 11, 2001, you might be able to guess from watching it.
The movie's view of the American military as a loony bin led by fools and fiends doesn't square with the current soldiers-as-heroes gospel.
And, no, the movie's perspective probably doesn't come only from its Cold War setting: A Cold War-era film made today would almost have to have a less sharp satirical edge.
To be specific, Buffalo Soldiers is set on and around an American army base in West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The movie's hero -- or, at least, its most sympathetic character -- is black marketeer Ray Elwood.
Ostensibly a military clerk, Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a little like the conniving Sgt. Bilko and the doctors in M*A*S*H. The difference is that Bilko, for all his duplicity, never hurt anyone, and the M*A*S*H surgeons actually saved lives.
Because Elwood's inventory includes weapons and drugs, he can't make those claims. In fact, the only reason he's even vaguely sympathetic is that his nemesis is even worse.
That would be Sgt. Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), a fire-breather who makes it his business to clamp down on Elwood. Lee has even less regard for human life than Elwood does, and he's crude and obnoxious about it to boot.
After the sergeant invades Elwood's cushy setup and smashes his TV, Elwood retaliates by asking out his beautiful daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin of X-Men).
Watching her dive from the high board at the base swimming pool, Elwood looks like a fox sizing up a chicken. But Robyn is no fool: She quickly deduces what he's up to and she's tickled.
She's worried, too, because she knows that her father is capable of doing things a lot worse than anything Elwood imagines.
Based on the novel by Robert O'Connor, Buffalo Soldiers (which opens today) was directed and co-written by Gregor Jordan (Two Hands).
Press notes reveal that the title is a nickname for an old army regiment of freed slaves whose hair, according to the Indians they fought, looked like that of buffalo. But perhaps because Elwood and his helpers are forever attempting to "buffalo" someone, that meaning is in there too.
As Col. Wallace Berman, Elwood's main dupe, Ed Harris has a goofy sweetness that he's seldom shown on screen: At times he looks so boyish that he makes you think of Ron Howard.
Elizabeth McGovern seems to be having a blast playing the colonel's lascivious wife, a lip-smacking babe who happens to be one of Elwood's conquests. As Robyn, Paquin is bouncy fun, while the ramrod-stiff Glenn, as her father, projects a palpable ferocity.
In the starring role, Phoenix runs amusingly hot and cold: a faux innocent when he's with dupes like the colonel, a smooth operator with those in the know.
He's good at both sides of the role and seems to especially relish playing dumb: Phoenix opens his eyes wide and purges his face of all guile.
It's easier to have fun at Buffalo Soldiers if you can temporarily put Sept. 11 and the current situation in Iraq out of your mind. It's easier still if you can manage not to take Elwood's weapons and drugs, and the film's casual attitude toward the loss of life, too seriously.
Of course, that's asking a lot. And eventually, the movie's rampant nihilism catches up with it.
It's a different world today than the one that you remember as you watch Buffalo Soldiers. Jokes that might once have been funny curdle in the heat of our times.
Jay Boyar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5492.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times