The American fighting forces skillfully ridiculed
DIRECTED BY Gregor Jordan
STARRING Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, Scott Glenn
Opens July 18, Cert 15, 98 mins
It’s been a long time coming, but Gregor Jordan’s pitch-black satire on Uncle Sam’s military machine finally gets a UK release after a string of setbacks. A huge hit when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 7, 2001, its initial momentum was derailed by the 9/11 attacks. Five subsequent attempts to release it in the US were also aborted (most recently due to the war in the Gulf), while in the UK the collapse of the film’s production company, FilmFour, in July 2002 suggested it might never see the light of day over here.
Finally, Buffalo Soldiers has found a new home at Pathe, and we can see what the fuss is about. In a nutshell, it’s Catch-22 meets Three Kings. Set on a US air force base in Germany just weeks before the Berlin Wall comes down, it follows Special Fourth Class soldier Ray Elwood (Phoenix), an amoral hustler who seems to have studied from the Bilko book of military protocol. Willing to trade whatever he can get his hands on, Elwood and his brigade of misfits, losers and addicts hit the jackpot when they come across a consignment of hi-tech weapons in two abandoned trucks. The only obstacle stopping them from collecting huge profits is bull-nosed Viet Vet sergeant Robert Lee (Glenn), who develops an almost pathological obsession with bringing Elwood down. Pouring gas on the fire, Elwood soon starts seeing Lee’s teenage daughter Robyn (Paquin).
Phoenix is on mischievous form here, whether running illegal scams or sparking off Harris (Elwood’s weak-willed base commander) and Elizabeth McGovern (Harris’ two-timing wife). But the best performance comes from Glenn, who betters even his recent ensemble work in Training Day and The Shipping News, visibly enjoying himself as Phoenix’s detestable, gung-ho nemesis.
Buffalo Soldiers shares its bitter, black sense of humour with Jordan’s first film, 1999’s Australian heist thriller Two Hands, but this is driven by a far more devilish sensibility, and the screenplay (from Robert O’Connor’s 1993 novel) crackles with fiery, feisty wit and energy.