Buffalo Soldiers

on July 25, 2003 by Susan Green
A kind of Milo Minderbinder for our time, U.S. Army Specialist Ray Elwood wheels and deals with relative impunity from his supply battalion on a base in West Germany. Like his industrious predecessor in Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," the young conscript in "Buffalo Soldiers" is a wizard at redistributing consumer goods in a bustling black market. Everything from gallons of Mop 'n' Glo to hard drugs passes through his hands. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, Elwood's a crafty Cold War profiteer just before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

This very black comedy, by Australian director Gregor Jordan, is full of surprises. He depicts the military as a haven for heroin, with Elwood consistently managing to fool his naive but essentially decent commanding officer. Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) fails to confront all the illegal activities because he's too concerned with a potential promotion that his two-timing wife (Elizabeth McGovern) pushes him to pursue. Then three new people arrive on the scene: Robyn (Anna Paquin), who falls for Elwood; her father Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn), a hard-nosed Vietnam veteran who immediately zeroes in on Elwood's corrupt practices; and Knoll (Gabriel Mann), a bookish young recruit with a hidden agenda.

"Catch 22" satirizes the grim, frequently inane bureaucratic arm of government that sends Americans into combat. "Buffalo Soldiers" has much the same dark comic flair, intensified by the fact that many of the characters are dope fiends or drug lords. Consequently, another nemesis for Elwood is a thuggish MP, Sergeant Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey). The line between good guys and bad guys is a bit blurred, however. This lends an aura of ambiguity to the proceedings, which culminate with an unexpectedly satisfying twist. BUFFALO SOLDIERS Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, Scott Glenn, Elizabeth McGovern, Gabriel Mann, Sheik Mahmud-Bey, Michael Pena, Leon Robinson and Dean Stockwell. Directed by Gregor Jordan. Written by Gregor Jordan, Eric Alex Weiss and Nora Maccoby. Produced by Rainer Grupe and Ariane Moody. A Miramax release. Black comedy. Rated R for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality. Running time: 97 min.

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