The unseemly underbelly of the peacetime army is dissected to darkly comic effect in “Buffalo Soldiers.” Intriguing up to a point for its peek into a little-examined piece of American military life — specifically, troops stationed in 1989 Germany with little to do — pic turns sour with its relentless and ultimately cynical view of uxorial and strife-ridden relationships among soldiers. Possibly much more damaging in terms of the film’s commercial prospects, however, is the slim chance, any time in the foreseeable future, that the American public will feel like supporting an entertainment that hinges on an absurdist view of an entirely disunified and incompetent military. All of a sudden, this looks like the wrong film at the wrong time.
Fronted by a crafty, selfish character reminiscent of William Holden’s memorable Sgt. Sefton in “Stalag 17,” but without the redemption, this adaptation of Robert O’Connor’s novel comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the amoral and illegal manipulations of Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a clerk with the U.S. Army’s 317th Supply Battalion stationed near Stuttgart who has used his access to goods and equipment — everything from Mop ‘n’ Glo to heavy artillery —to forge a lucrative career on the black market.
Elwood is personal secretary to the insecure base commander, Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), whose neurotic wife (Elizabeth McGovern) he is servicing on the side. To top it off, Elwood also “cooks” the heroin bought and sold by the black MPs who lord it over the base with a distinctly belligerent, racially charged hand.
Elwood’s behavior may be amusing to those who take knee-jerk pleasure in anti-authoritarian antics of any kind, and for a while there is an undeniable pleasure to be had in observing just how this low-ranking but high-living rascal has been able to turn the rules to his advantage and shaft his superiors at every turn. The tilt toward morbid humor is solidified when the irrepressible Elwood, after stumbling across millions’ worth of new armaments in a truck, decides to hide the portable missiles, grenade launchers and guns at a nearby nuclear base until he can dispose of them.
But just as Elwood is poised to pull off the biggest scam of his career, a monkey wrench appears in the person of new top sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), a tough, old Vietnam vet intent upon some house cleaning. The cocky Elwood’s first move is to start dating Lee’s hot-to-trot daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), but the more Elwood flaunts his impudence, the more the sergeant tightens the vise on the young upstart, whose plans to deliver the stolen arms suddenly become threatened by some war games scheduled for the nuke base.
Helmer and co-scenarist Gregor Jordan, whose 1999 debut feature, the comic crimer “Two Hands,” was a big hit in its native Australia, handles the action proficiently and paces the escalating complications with fluidity and swiftness. Main problem centers upon the rapidly dwindling feeling one can have for Elwood, an unregenerate bad boy whose disruptive and criminal activities deserve every bit of censure Sgt. Lee can bring to bear.
Had the young Jack Nicholson played such a character during the height of the Vietnam War, it would have been easy to go along for the ride. But skilled as Phoenix is at pulling off the individual scenes of Elwood’s shenanigans, the actor doesn’t come across as embodying rebellion to the marrow of his bones, which renders his scams arbitrary and disagreeably irresponsible. In this context, “upbeat” coda is a cheap turnoff.
Thesps have a lot of snappy exchanges and charged confrontations to enact and do so with verve; Glenn and Paquin come off exceptionally well in this regard. Shot largely at an abandoned American Army base near Karlsruhe, Germany, pic boasts strong production values and a good sense of testosterone-loaded young men whose lack of a productive outlet for their energy results in a lot of wasteful and destructive activity.
Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2001. Running time: 98 MIN.