Dir. Gregor Jordan, 2001, USA/Rest of the world, Drama/Comedy, 98 mins
Anna Paquin, Ed Harris, Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Glenn
At a time when the majority of America are striving to have their soldiers portrayed as some sort of heroic role models, Buffalo Soldiers arrives like a two-fingered salute to any motion of patriotism. The film was originally scheduled for release in late 2001 but was put on hold due to the September 11 terrorist atrocities. There were fears of it being deemed insensitive. And it's not difficult to see why certain patriots could be appalled. The film is a bitingly funny, blacker-than-black comedy designed to expose the hypocrisy of myths about the glories of war and power as seen through the eyes of its amoral 'hero'.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Specialist Ray Elwood of the 317th Battalion stationed in West Germany just days before the fall of the Berlin wall. He sets his stall out from the start with the gleeful admission that the three things he loves about Germany are "my Mercedes Benz, no speed limit on the Autobahn, and a black market for anything I can get my hands on".
Elwood operates as a sort of latter-day Sgt Bilko for the Trainspotting generation, confident in the knowledge that his inept but caring commander, Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), is wrapped around his little finger. But his own cold war hots up considerably with the arrival of Scott Glenn's no -nonsense top Sergeant Lee who determines to clean up the base and rid it of the drug-dealing element that is earning it a bad name. And so begins a battle of wits between the two as Elwood sets his sights on Lee's daughter (Anna Paquin) while trying to negotiate an arms deal that could set him up for life.
Given its heady mix of morally bankrupt characters and its depiction of the US soldiers as, at best, inept, and, at worst, corrupt young men, director Gregor Jordan was always likely to be courting controversy with his adaptation of Robert O'Connor's hip novel. Yet for those who can see past the inclination to criticise it for daring to depict soldiers in anything but a heroic light, there are rich rewards.
The story itself is never less than compelling while some of the set pieces are a riot - particularly when a stoned tank crew goes on the rampage through a market before inadvertently blowing up a petrol station and killing two of their own colleagues.
The film also contains plenty of wry observations at the expense of the gung-ho image of the military that is frequently depicted on film. It also delivers some notable performances not least from Phoenix who continues to build on an impressive CV. His happy-go-lucky Elwood is a barbed delight, a morally complex anti-hero who does what he does through sheer boredom before eventually being forced to take some sort of responsibility for his actions, particularly in regards to his feelings for Paquin.
It's a cool, charismatic turn in a really hip movie which also boasts star turns from Harris, cast against type as the wimpish commander, Paquin - playing it cute - and Glenn whose hard-as-nails sergeant is every bit as dangerous as the guys he is trying to contain.
According to different reports, passions at the Sundance Film Festival were running so high against the film that, at one screening, a member of the audience attempted to pelt the director and screen with a plastic bottle only to hit Paquin and an elderly viewer. Ironic, really, that a film designed to highlight the hypocrisy of war should provoke a bout of friendly fire.