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151 SEPTEMBER 25, 2003
  the Reel
  The Hell of Peacetime
  By Jeremy Mathews

“Buffalo Soldiers”
Miramax Films
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Screenplay by Eric Axel Weiss, Nora Maccoby and Gregor Jordan, based on the book by Robert O’Connor
Produced by Rainer Grupe and Ariane Moody
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Pena, Gabriel Mann, Dean Stockwell, Brian Delate and Leon Robinson
Rated R

(out of four)

Joaquin Phoenix isn't your stereotypical soldier in 'Buffalo Soldiers' - he's an opportunistic criminal and drug dealer.  

Because of the movie’s heated political views, Miramax Films postponed the U.S. release of “Buffalo Soldiers” for almost two years, first after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, then for the coming war. Now that it’s finally here, the reason for the studio’s sensitivity is obvious, but the engaging—if flawed—work doesn’t spew bile. Instead, it starts a discussion about what can happen in certain situations that the military creates.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a sneaking, lying, stealing, corrupt company clerk stationed in Germany in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. War is hell, he narrates, but peace is boring. With no draft, many of the men on duty, Elwood included, volunteered in order to get out of a prison sentence. Training deviants to kill, Elwood says, makes the Army a much more dangerous place for him than prison.

To pass the time, Elwood, who’s the company clerk, sells Army supplies on the black market. When his commanding officer, Col. Berman (Ed Harris), asks him why he needs thousands of gallons of Mop & Glo, his response is priceless. His other activities don’t inspire as much humor—he makes some money cooking Turkish morphine into heroin.

Indeed, several soldiers use various drugs under the less-than-all-seeing eye of Berman, who’s also unaware that Elwood regularly sleeps with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern). The soldiers operate conspicuously, usually with little concern of being caught or punished for what they do. When a new soldier comes in walking straight and saluting, he confuses Elwood.

In an early scene, Elwood disinterestedly watches his fellow soldiers play football on the hard cement floor. If the danger of this isn’t obvious, one soldier dies after a hard tackle. The solution: Throw him out the window.

In another scene, drugged-out tank operators take an accidental detour into the village and don’t have the mental capacity to get back on course quickly. While director Gregor Jordan creates ironic comedy and then suspense in the scene, the story feels a little forced afterward, as the commanders remain clueless and there aren’t any civilian witnesses. Most of the time, however, the soldiers’ ability to get away with crimes feels plausible, if incredible.

Phoenix makes Elwood a real character with a sardonic attitude that plays off the comedy. But for the film to make its point, Elwood has to be unlikable, since his actions are deplorable. Yet the film requires that he be more likable than the other characters. Harris’ colonel is too stupid to like, while the new hard-ass Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn), who takes an immediate dislike to Elwood, provides a foil to the main character. Lee stands for military values and war, and there’s a certain comfort to Elwood’s amenities-filled quarters that makes his life more appealing.

As Lee begins to tighten ship, Elwood decides to ask his daughter (Anna Paquin) out on a date. The workings of his mind aren’t clear, but it’s as if Elwood will undermine and take advantage of authority at any cost. As in films in which gangsters are the main characters, there’s a certain appeal to the business, but there’s more outrage for the disrespect with which he treats humanity.

More than anything else, “Buffalo Soldiers” is about that lack of humanity and how the military’s structure, used one way or another, can generate it if we’re not careful. And we aren’t always careful.

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