A dark comedy on par with Pulp Fiction, Aussie director Gregor Jordan (in his second film) transports us to Germany in 1989, on an American Army base during the waning days of the Cold War. These enlisted troops aren't your Officer and a Gentleman go-getters. They're criminals, offered the option to serve their country in lieu of staying in jail. But since there's no war on, getting in to trouble is the only thing to do. As our protagonist says, "There was nothing to kill but time."
Front and center is Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a clerk whose shit-eating grin belies the fact that he is an expert at manipulating the system for personal gain. This entails everything from black marketeering Army-bought Mop & Glo to cooking up heroin after hours in the Army dispensary. Yet the genius of Buffalo Soldiers is that Ray isn't a demon: He's a genuinely fun guy that we can't help but root for: Even though his naïve boss, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), can't see what's going on right under his nose, Elwood is cordial and helpful. He just skims off the top of Berman's ridiculous requests. The system is corrupt, obviously, so why shouldn't Ray get his?
The film zips along until Ray and his friends come into possession of about $3 million worth of weapons gone missing from their rightful owners. Ray decides he can sell them on the black market, though it will be his biggest deal ever by far. The only problem is a new Sergeant (Scott Glenn), who starts giving Ray the shakedown at every opportunity. In retaliation, Ray dates Sarge's daughter (Anna Paquin). Sarge in turn puts Ray's shiny new car at the opposite end of a target practice firing line. As we go along, Ray's story gets progressively more disturbing while taking it completely over the top, blending tragedy and comedy as well as I've ever seen. It's A Clockwork Orange meets Catch-22.
A mere plot synopsis simply can't express the wild comedy of Buffalo Soldiers, which had me in stitches throughout the film. Stoned soldiers crush a hapless VW beetle with a tank. People blow up in fireballs -- and we laugh. No subject is sacred, and this may be too much for some who think Jordan's lambasting of the American military is out of bounds. (There may be something to this: If you're going to make fun of the U.S. Army, you really ought to be one of us. The film is so vitriolic I honestly can't believe it got made, with real tanks, no less.)
No matter. Jordan's film is so dead-on and so utterly perfect that I wouldn't care if he was Martian. The man can tell a story that makes us laugh at life, think about political policy, and craft a number of unforgettable characters. Jordan crams all of this into 100 minutes, with a story as tight as a made bed, military-style. Jordan's script (based on Robert O'Connor's novel) is masterful and makes all the right moves. His direction is stylish but not overbearing: The repeated dream sequences in which Ray finds himself falling from the clouds to the earth (and hitting it) could have come off as cheesy, but they actually serve the story quite well. Harris is memorable in a role recalling his work in Glengarry Glen Ross, but it's Phoenix who steals the show as the anti-Top Gun, a soldier without a cause who proves that peacetime can be infinitely more dangerous than any war.
I guess Bob Marley said it best in this movie's namesake song: "Woe yo yo, woe-woe yo yo."
Jordan's commentary track is the highlight of the DVD extras. Also included is a behind-the-scenes documentary and one of those Sundance "Anatomy of a Scene" extras.
Home on the range.
Run time: 98 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 31st October 2002
Box Office USA: $0.2M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Good Machine, Grosvenor Park Films LLP, Film4
Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
Fresh: 83 Rotten: 31
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Gregor Jordan
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix as Ray Elwood, Ed Harris as Colonel Berman, Scott Glenn as Sergeant Lee, Anna Paquin as Robyn Lee, Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Berman, Michael Peña as Garcia, Leon as Stoney (as Leon Robinson), Gabriel Mann as Pfc. Brian Knoll, Dean Stockwell as General Lancaster, Brian Delate as Colonel Marshall, Shiek Mahmud-Bey as Sergeant Saad (as Sheik Mahmud-Bey), Amani Gethers as Kirschfield, Noah Lee Margetts as Rothfuss (as Noah), Tom Ellis as Squash