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Phoenix fires up ‘Buffalo Soldiers’

Controversial black comedy portrays soldiers as addicts, arms dealers
/ Source: The Associated Press

In this era of renewed patriotism, of American flags fluttering on porches and soldier homecomings, this might NOT be the best time for a film that portrays the U.S. military as a bunch of drug addicts and arms dealers. Miramax has repeatedly postponed release of the black comedy “Buffalo Soldiers” since acquiring the film two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival — on Sept. 10, 2001.

A day later, the hot property turned into a hot potato.

The release was postponed. Then came the war in Afghanistan. Another postponement. Then, the war in Iraq. Another delay.

But finally “Buffalo Soldiers” is arriving in theaters, and it would be a shame if it were to become a casualty of war. This entertaining film is quite funny and has a top-notch cast headed by that appealing bad boy Joaquin Phoenix.

Supporting Phoenix is the grizzled Scott Glenn, as a combat-weary sergeant; Anna Paquin, sexy and provocative as the sergeant’s young daughter; and best of all, Ed Harris, playing deliciously against type as a foolish officer.

The film, the second feature by Gregor Jordan (“Two Hands”), takes place on a U.S. Army base in Germany in 1989, just as the Berlin wall is coming down and the Cold War has thawed. There is, in short, no war to fight, and these American soldiers are bored, very bored.

And a sorry bunch they are. “Criminals and high-school dropouts, trained to kill,” says military clerk Ray Elwood (Phoenix). “Prison would be safer.”

But Elwood is a cut above the others — not in moral fiber, but in cleverness.

In his determination to stave off boredom, he’s become a master drug trafficker, who also happens to dabble in arms deals. His motto: “War is hell. Peace is (expletive) boring.”

Lesson from Nietzsche
He gets his big chance when two stoned soldiers botch a tank exercise, taking a wrong turn and rolling into a traditional village marketplace, crushing stalls and people and cars. In the process, they kill two fellow soldiers who approach the tank to investigate. The dead soldiers have left behind two trucks full of expensive U.S. weaponry, ripe for sale on the black market.

Elwood thinks he has it made. But then Robert Lee (Glenn) comes to town. Lee, a wizened Vietnam vet and the base’s new top sergeant, embarks on some major housecleaning, which puts him on a collision course with Elwood. Elwood fights back by seducing Lee’s teenage daughter, Robyn, in his car. Lee counters by later ordering target practice on the car, turning it into a big colander.

As these two wrestle inexorably toward a violent climax, Elwood finds himself inconveniently falling in love with Robyn — the only person who seems able to squeeze some sincerity out of him.

Meanwhile, Harris is bumbling along as the ambitious but dimwitted Col. Berman, earning only disapproval and embarrassment from his sex-starved wife (Elizabeth McGovern) who, naturally, is sleeping with Elwood.

The supporting cast is fine, but the film revolves around Phoenix, who manages to earn our scorn and our sympathy in equal measure. He’s well directed by Jordan, who also co-wrote the script with Eric Axel Weiss and Nora Maccoby, based on the novel by Robert O’Connor.

Though the film ends on a humorous note, there’s an explosion of violence beforehand that gives the term “friendly fire” a new meaning.

It leaves us with a lesson articulated by Nietzsche, who’s quoted in the film: “When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”