Buffalo Soldiers

(2003) *** R
98 min. distributer. Director: Gregor Jordan. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern.

The love-child of M*A*S*H and Catch-22, Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers continually promises to erupt, but when it does, it does so not into full-bore satire but rather plot-satisfying theatrics. This pay-off turns out to be, marginally, enough in this well-acted, irreverent black comedy.

Based on the novel by Robert O'Connor and scripted by Eric Axel Weiss & Nora Maccoby, Buffalo Soldiers dramatizes Nietzsche's observation that "When there is peace, the war-like man attacks himself." Set at an American army base (named for Teddy Roosevelt) in 1989 West Germany, the story follows Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), one of a pack of soldiers recruited through the criminal courts (the choice: prison time or an army stint). Phoenix gives Elwood--an amoral Radar O'Reilly--a blank look which, though appropriate to the story's scary comedy of Cold-War manners, blunts the charisma we might assume lurks underneath.

As in Fight Club, Buffalo Soldiers's male aggression (reined in by authority) finds strange release: in the phallic, Strangelovian trappings of the military (particularly the runaway tanks), in the drug-dealing devil's playground wrought by idle hands on the unsuspecting base, and in the phobic falling dreams plaguing Elwood. When Elwood asks a young charge to whip up burgers to stimulate a band of brothers cooking a bulk of smack, he understates, "They don't teach you about this stuff in basic."

The principal conflict in Buffalo Soldiers comes not from Ed Harris's base commander Colonel Berman, but Scott Glenn's hard-ass Sergeant Lee, who takes umbrage at Elwood's wheeling and dealing. Acting out on his subconscious death wish, Elwood begins dating Lee's daughter (a winningly tender Anna Paquin), making for an offbeat romance that makes up in honesty what it may lack in screen chemistry. Harris is wonderfully and hilariously cast against type, while Glenn's more typical role starts out spicy but degenerates into one-dimensional villainy.

Buffalo Soldiers may play mechanically, but this machine has obviously had its maintenance checks, rolling smoothly through its military exercise.

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