From its opening shot of a bomb-bay door opening over a nightlit city and Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) plummeting out in his pyjamas, 'Buffalo Soldiers' arrests your attention and does not let go, doing for the Cold War what 'Three Kings' did for the first Gulf war - i.e. following the adventures of a small group of profiteering soldiers in order to satirise the self-interested smash-and-grab attitudes of U.S. foreign policy. The film was made in 2001, at a time when 'unpatriotic' cynicism about the conduct of the American armed forces abroad was perfectly acceptable - but then along came September 11th, and it is only now, after further U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, that 'Buffalo Soldiers' has at last been allowed off the shelf.
It is 1989 - the year the Berlin Wall came down. The soldiers stationed at the 317th Supply Battalion in West Germany are 'fighting the dull fight', with 'nothing to kill except time', and the only casualties of war are the overdosing smack users amongst them. Elwood, clerk to the helpless Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), overcomes the tedium of non-combat by having a finger in every pie: he sells 'requisitioned' army goods onto the German blackmarket, services the sexual needs of Berman's bored wife (Elizabeth McGovern), and converts morphine into heroin for distribution amongst the soldiers by a group of vicious vegetarian Military Police, led by Sergeant Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey).
Elwood's happy existence comes under threat as Saad tries to muscle in on his growing business, at the same time as the uncompromising Vietnam veteran Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives on base with his rebellious daughter Robin (Anna Paquin) - and when someone starts stealing Ray's stash and leaving deadly boobytraps for his partners, and the Turkish mob begin baying for his blood, it soon looks as though no amount of fast talking or dodgy dealing can rescue Elwood from the fall that is coming to him.
What makes the roguish Elwood sympathetic enough to carry the film is his strong anti-authoritarian streak (lending him the perfect voice for satire), and the sense that his activities, however criminal, are strictly smalltime compared with those being conducted by his superiors. Joaquin Phoenix brings just the right amount of can-do naivety to the role, and Scott Glenn is also excellent, choosing to give his Lee not the hackneyed barkings of a drill sergeant, but rather a quiet self-assured menace. And in the background of all the military corruption, strife and shenanigans is the spectre of President George Bush Sr., seen either on TV screens or in portraits, reminding us of another President Bush, and of how little, despite the end of the Cold War, times have actually changed.
Director Gregor Jordan ('Two Hands') has appropriated Robert O'Connor's novel, repackaging its thrills, comedy and military satire as pure cinema and selling them onto us for a snip. As Elwood himself puts it: 'That's good Scheisse, ja?'.
Anton Bitel, 09/07/03