Buffalo Soldiers

2003, Movie, R, 98 mins


The victim of cosmically unfortunate timing, this dark military satire based on Robert O'Conner's 1993 novel secured distribution the day before the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center. Australian director Gregor Jordan's adaptation of O'Connor's book is scabrous, misanthropic and painfully aware that idle hands are the devil's workshop, especially when they're holding guns. Posted to a base near Mannheim, Germany, during the 1980s, supply clerk Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), who enlisted as an alternative to jail, scams and schemes his way through the tedium of peacetime military service. His fellow soldiers are, with few exceptions, a sorry assortment of sycophants, junkies, hustlers and sociopaths in uniform who constitute a lucrative market for all manner of illicit goods. A sort of modern-day Sgt. Bilko, Elwood sells pilfered base supplies to German civilians, deals high-quality heroin that he cooks up in a deserted hangar, acts as a middleman in various dubious transactions and has a nice thing going with the bored and shrewish wife (Elizabeth Berridge) of his commanding officer, burnt-out Colonel Wallace Berman (Ed Harris). Elwood shares the wealth with pals Stoney (Leon Robinson) and Garcia (Michael Pena), and stays ahead of the MPs by flattering and cosseting Berman with the consummate skill of a born toady. An innately decent fellow beneath his cynical veneer, Elwood even takes unwelcome new roommate Knoll (Gabriel Mann) under his wing, schooling the bespectacled greenhorn in the intricate protocols of camp life. Then Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives, and it all goes straight to hell. A leathery military lifer with three tours of Vietnam under his web-belt, Lee despises the ineffectual Berman and sees right through Elwood, who's in the middle of the most complicated and dangerous plot of his disreputable life: coordinating a high-level arms transaction. The WTC attacks created an atmosphere unfavorable to release a film portraying American military personnel as slackers, hustlers, bullies and worse, and it burned through a series of release dates abandoned because of subsequent military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the end, it languished for the better part of two years before opening in theaters; the irony is that like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H before it, the story is less anti-military per se then anti-knee-jerk authoritarianism. The brouhaha aside, this chronicle of SNAFUs foretold doesn't have much new to say but says it with biting precision, and Phoenix's sharp, sneakily sympathetic performance is a pleasure to watch. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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