"Buffalo Soldiers" labors under the weight of its status by default as a one-film reanimation of a dead film genre: the critical U.S. military comedy. But even with hopes for a contempo "M*A*S*H*" set aside, "BS" is just a more pointlessly nihilistic "Catch-22" overlaid with stoner comedy. There are a few decent chuckles here, but by the time director Gregor Jordan gets around to his outta-left-field "happy" epilogue, you realize that there's not much more at his film's heart than a self-satisfied, cynical smirk.
Joaquin Phoenix charms sporadically as Spc. 4th Class Ray Elwood, a Gen-X ex-con stationed at a U.S. Army base in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bored senseless, he makes coin and passes time by cooking heroin for local dealers and addict GIs. (Best comic sequence: A tank manned by junked-up grunts accidentally demolishes a gas station, kills two soldiers, flattens a market and finally arrives at its rendezvous point, with HQ unaware that anything amiss has occurred.)
When not making a fool of his sad-sack superior, Col. Berman (Ed Harris), Elwood stumbles on a $5 million weapons cache, which he steals and stores in an unguarded nuclear facility. A war of wills with hard-ass Sgt. Robert E. "I fuckin' loved Vietnam!" Lee (Scott Glenn) inspires Elwood to seduce Lee's daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), leading to a lackluster love-story subplot.
Encouragingly, Elwood's moral glibness dissolves as his exploits gain a body count. Unfortunately, the film's eventual big-whoop miniapocalypse buries Elwood's semiredemption under a pileup of contrivance and the aforementioned lousy epilogue, while Jordan's pokey rhythms prevent his better riffs from building comedic steam.
With its release date repeatedly reset, "Buffalo Soldiers" was a near-casualty of Miramax's post-Sept. 11 sensibilities, as well as the usual reluctance of Hollywood studios to release films about, well, much of anything, much less anything political. But Miramax need not have worried. The film's ugly-Americanisms are trite; its military -- from private to general -- uniformly contemptible. Shots of Bush Sr. blathering piously about the Wall's fall stand in for illuminating context. "Buffalo Soldiers" exists in a uselessly lefty cartoon world; one can easily imagine Weekly Standard staffers snickering at its cheap-seat send-ups. Sadly, they'd be right.
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