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Sometimes, movies (like people) can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take Australian writer-director Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers (2001), for example. This smart, pointed and pitch-black comedy about U.S. soldiers behaving badly in Cold War-era West Germany opened at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9, 2001. Two days later, of course, the United States would be faced with September 11th, an event which would make anything even vaguely “anti-American” absolutely verboten for some time afterward. A film about greedy, avaricious, drug-dealing GIs running rough-shod (literally) over a foreign country? Buffalo Soldiers had about as much chance of receiving U.S. distribution as it did sprouting wings and flying to Saturn.

Which, as it turns out, is a real shame: not only is Buffalo Soldiers the furthest thing from an anti-American screed but it’s also one of the funniest, most cutting war satires since the glory days of M.A.S.H. (1970) and Catch-22 (1970). The soldiers depicted here might be reprehensible, violent and debauched con-men but they’re also fascinating characters, brought to vivid life by an outstanding cast. The script is smart, the film is full of surprising left twists and there’s a gleeful sense of abandon to the proceedings that make it easy to get lost in the bad behavior. Had the film come out a month (or even a few weeks) earlier, it would probably be heralded as a minor classic, along the lines of Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997). As it stands, however, Buffalo Soldiers is a largely unknown gem, waiting for modern audiences to give it the fair shot it never got the first time around.

The film takes place in the waning hours of the Cold War, in 1989, at Theodore Roosevelt Army Base in Stuttgart, West Germany. Our “hero” (such as he is), Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), is a conscripted ne’er-do-well who chose a stint in the armed forces over a stiff prison sentence and has regretted it ever since. Ray may be many things (a black marketeer, a philanderer, a hopeless screw-up and a perpetual con-man) but he’s definitely not a soldier, regardless of what his uniform, rifle and salute might indicate. Lucky for him, Teddy R Army Base is a veritable Garden of Eden for screw-ups and wasteoids, with a cast of quirky characters who would all fit right in with the idiots of Police Academy (1984): Ray may not be “the best that he can be” but at least he’s got plenty of good (bad?) company.

Commanding officer Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) is a soft-headed simpleton who’s as clueless about Elwood’s criminal activities as he is about his wife, Liz’s ( Elizabeth McGovern), on-going affair with the procurement specialist. Sergeant Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey), the brutal leader of the base’s MPs, deals heroin on the side and eagerly patrols the grounds with his men, enthusiastically beating any white soldiers who are unlucky enough to cross the base’s invisible color-line. Meanwhile, Ellwood’s fellow soldiers, Hicks (Glenn Fitzgerald), Garcia (Michael Pena) and Stoney (Leon Robinson), are all permafried and given to reprehensible behavior like getting completely fucked up and driving their tank through the middle of a quaint German town: it’s all fun and games until they accidentally barbecue two of their own, bringing a terrible sense of literalness to the term “friendly fire.”

As with all good criminals, Elwood is really just looking for that one, big haul that will let him retire into the lap of luxury and ease. Thanks to Hicks, Garcia and Stoney’s misadventures in the tank, opportunity drops into Elwood’s greedy hands when he steals the dead soldiers’ supply trucks, which just happen to be laden with millions of dollars worth of weaponry. Elwood turns around and sells the weapons to a dubious outside source and receives a king’s ransom in uncut smack for his troubles. Working around the clock, Elwood and his crew need to turn the pure heroin into pure profit, engaging in the kind of massive drug cook that would make Walt and Jesse misty.

Things get complicated, however, when the base receives its new “top,” Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn). Lee is a complete hard-ass who has no time for foolishness and instantly marks Elwood as a problem to be eradicated, similar to a roach infestation. As the two men feint around each other, probing for weakness, each thinks he’s found the other’s Achilles heel: Elwood is determined to “stick it” to Sergeant Lee by (literally) sticking it to his rebellious daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), while Lee is determined to make Elwood’s life a living hell via a million tiny indignities, along with the occasional ass-whipping. As the mortal enemies gradually ramp up their campaigns, Lee becomes increasingly violent while Elwood, ironically, finds himself falling for Robyn, despite his most cavalier intentions.

As the conflict gets more intense, everything is brought to a head when Colonel Berman challenges a rival colonel to an exceedingly unfriendly round of “friendly” war games. With Saad, Lee and his various illicit contacts bearing down, Elwood must figure out how to keep his ill-gotten gains, his girl and his head, all while running the scam of his life. Welcome to Theodore Roosevelt Army Base, where the Commies are the least of your worries.

Based on Robert O’Connor’s well-received 1993 debut novel of the same name, Buffalo Soldiers is a quality production from top to bottom. Almost ridiculously stylish and vibrant (the early shot of the soldiers marching across the flag-painted asphalt is a real eye-popper), there’s more than a hint of magical-realism to the proceedings, which helps to play up the many inherently fantastic elements, such as the riotous tank scene. Although the screenplay is credited to three writers (director Jordan, along with Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby), the film never feels overly cluttered or disjointed: there’s a remarkable sense of cohesion, here, that belies Buffalo Soldiers’ split-authorship and speaks volumes towards the production’s structural integrity.

When you have a cast this good, there’s always a danger of “unnecessary cameo disorder (patent pending)” but this has more the feel of a gifted ensemble than anything more calculating. Phoenix is dependably good as the roguish Ellwood, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen from him in the past. Much better (and more surprising) are Harris and Glenn as, respectively, the Colonel and the Sergeant. Usually known as the craggiest thing in whatever production he happens to be in, Harris does a complete 360, here, and gives us the closest thing to a complete bumpkin that I think he’s ever done. Berman is a complete idiot, no two ways about it, but Harris brings just enough low-level cunning and pathos to the character to prevent him from being a completely silly, stock stereotype.

Glenn, for his part, is a complete force of nature as the cheerfully dastardly Sergeant Lee: one minute, he’s all stiff, starched and by-the-book. The next, he’s gleefully extolling the bad behavior that he, himself, got up to in Vietnam, insinuating that it would make Ellwood’s “adventures” seem like schoolboy pranks. It’s a great role and a great performance: there’s never a point where Glenn ever feels any less than 1000% invested in the role and his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

The supporting cast aren’t slouches, either: Mahmud-Bey is convincingly terrifying as the casually sadistic MP, while Pena, Robinson and Fitzgerald get great mileage out of their bumbling soldiers. While the female characters don’t get quite as much to do, they’re never just background detail, either. McGovern makes the most of her screen-time by positing Liz as an avaricious, status-climber who possesses the brains (and balls) that her simpering husband doesn’t, while Paquin serves as a good foil for Phoenix: no one will mistake their courtship as “star-crossed love” but it works within the context of the story and continually pushes the plot into thorny new territories. Throw in some smaller (but no less impressive) appearances by Dean Stockwell, Idris Elba and Gabriel Mann and you’ve got a film with more than ample star-power in the tank.

Despite being unaware of the film on its first go-around, I was completely taken with it on this viewing: there’s enough energy and invention here for five films, to be honest. When Buffalo Soldiers is locked-in and firing on all cylinders, it’s practically unbeatable: the combination of coal-black humor, social commentary and detailed characterization make the film the furthest thing from “disposable” that you can get. As funny as it is, however (and it’s often incredibly funny), Buffalo Soldiers also never shies away from violence, death and grit, which really puts it into the same vaunted company as Altman’s M.A.S.H: they’re both films about the immense absurdity of the human condition and violent death is as much a part of that as breathing is.

When the film is at its horrifying best (the uproarious tank rampage that gets ugly quick…the bracing scene where a pair of higher-than-kite soldiers repeatedly stab each other, while grinning from ear to ear), it’s impossible to look away. While Jordan would go on to more successful projects like the Heath Ledger-starring Ned Kelly (2003) and Unthinkable (2010), I don’t think he’s ever quite scaled the same heights that he does here. Nearly 15 years after its initial (limited) release, I think it’s way past time for Buffalo Soldiers to get some of the attention it so richly deserves.

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