Set in 1989 Germany, this black comedy's happy-go-lucky US troops steal, commit adultery, make drugs, and sell arms on the black market, but don't know if they're stationed in East or West Germany, and when the Berlin Wall falls, don't know where Berlin is. Cheery Army misbehavior is classic, from "M.A.S.H." to "Beetle Bailey," but this film premiered 9/8/01 at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, and suddenly seemed the wrong film at the wrong time. Is now better? Yes. Patriotism shouldn't stifle dissent, and we should remember that disgruntled anti-authoritarianism is part of our national heritage. "Buffalo Soldiers" is only about its own eccentric soldiers, at a very specific time and place.
Company clerk Ray Elwood (Phoenix) is only in uniform only because a judge let him choose between jail and enlisting. He hustles everything from cleaning supplies to missiles, has his men make drugs at their Army base, drives a Mercedes, and completely buffaloes his commander, Col. Berman (Harris). Elwood is amoral, and not very likable. We can enjoy rogues in uniform as they give the finger to authority, but Elwood is just out for whatever he can get. After a tank maneuver in which a tank crew, out of their minds from drugs and drinking, heads their tank away from the training ground, through a nearby village market, and explodes at a gas station, Elwood and his men, finding the tank crew dead, quickly steal their trucks.
Elwood is also secret lovers with Col. Berman's wife (McGovern), and dates Robyn (Paquin), the daughter of the company's new top sergeant, Robert Lee (Glenn), a lean, unforgiving sergeant and Vietnam vet who quickly sizes up Elwood for a thief (as the Mercedes Elwood drives suggests), and sets out to make life miserable for him. Elwood's bribes don't sway Lee, and when he dates his daughter, the two men go to war, complicated by Elwood's astonished discovery that he really likes Robyn.
The movie ends darkly, involving copious amounts of drugs and money, and its epilogue seems too upbeat until the viewer finally grasps how downbeat it really is. Harris, Glenn, Phoenix, and Paquin are all great in roles full of emotional ups and downs. The movie defines the ancient Army acronym "SNAFU." We can't approve of Elwood, or even like him, but he represents a type, and, as Jordan's dark film suggests, such types sometimes prevail.
Eric Weiss, Nora MacCoby, & Gregor Jordan. based on the book by Robert O'Connor
Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dean Stockwell, Elizabeth McGovern
U.S. troops in Germany in 1989; M.A.S.H.
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