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Killing Time 

In the dark, brilliant Buffalo Soldiers, men of war beat boredom by attacking each other

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
Military clerk Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is something of a modern-day Sgt. Bilko (the 1950s TV character played by the late Phil Silvers). Anything you need, he can get. Any scam that's possible, he'll run. Never mind the bumbling Col. Berman (Ed Harris) who ostensibly runs the unit -- Elwood has him wrapped around his finger. There's just one major difference between the alter egos of Mr. Phoenix and Mr. Silvers (or Steve Martin, in the unlikely event that you prefer the big-screen Bilko): Ray Elwood deals drugs, often leading to fatal consequences for those around him. He's even willing to make a buck off those deaths. Suddenly the Dixie Chicks don't sound so controversial.

The movie in question is Buffalo Soldiers, based on an even darker book of the same name by Robert O'Connor, and Miramax has held the flick in reserve since the day after it bought the distribution rights on Sept. 10, 2001. Given the company's history of holding hot-button films in eternal limbo only to drop them altogether (much to the benefit of Lions Gate, which picked up both Dogma and O from the Brothers Weinstein under similar circumstances), it's impressive to see Buffalo Soldiers come out at all. Sept. 11 or not, this isn't a big crowd-pleasing movie -- if anything, its black-comedic, nihilistic, Nietzschean worldview resembles that of Fight Club, which garnered a rabid cult following and a fierce critical debate, but not a lot of box office green.

Also like Fight Club, it's a brilliantly made picture that will be despised for the right and wrong reasons; if you don't see the humor in it any time during the first half-hour, leave. Trust me. If you stay, you've passed the test -- sit back and enjoy one of the year's finest films.

Set in Germany in 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Buffalo Soldiers depicts a military we may not remember, one so unpopular to join that it obtains large numbers of recruits from the ranks of petty criminals facing jail time. This is also a pre-Gulf War I military, which, to quote Bush the Elder, has not yet "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." Faced with a rapidly thawing Cold War, the Army isn't even on much of an alert -- "Soldiers with nothing to kill except time," as Elwood puts it.

So what are a bunch of bored tough guys trained for combat supposed to do? Drugs, mostly, but there are others who get their highs from violence toward one another. In one particularly memorable scene, two soldiers in a burning building slowly take turns stabbing each other in the chest with knives, rather than cooperating to escape in one piece. As in prison, racial groups tend to stick together and fan the flames of prejudice (an element more crucial to the book, but still significant here). Play your cards right, as Elwood has, and you can get fast cars, access to all the local hot spots, and a whole network of criminal associates who'll look out for you. Make one wrong play, however, and the entire setup might just come crashing down.

In Elwood's case, it's a new player who puts things in jeopardy. New Top Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn, born to play military hard-asses) seems affable at first, but he quickly makes it clear that business as usual will not continue under his watch. Elwood naturally takes this as a suggestion rather than an order, and when he figures out that bribery won't work, he decides to date the Top's comely young daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), who has some major Daddy issues of her own.

Meanwhile, some hilariously stoned tank drivers have wreaked havoc in a local town, unleashing a chain of consequences that winds up putting a massive shipment of black-market state-of-the-art weaponry into Elwood's grubby hands. This might lead to the biggest deal he's ever made, but with Lee out to screw him by any means necessary, and the regular drug trade falling apart and causing friction with militant black Muslim Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey), you just know matters are going to get far worse.

Director/co-writer Gregor Jordan has done wonders with O'Connor's novel, playing up the humor, focusing on the plot-laden final chapters, jettisoning much of the back story, consolidating a few story lines and characters, and expanding upon various plot points in ways that make total sense. Jordan and his co-scribes Eric Axel Weiss and Nora Maccoby deserve an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, not just for making palatable O'Connor's depressing tale, but also for introducing and clearly delineating a large ensemble of characters within the tight span of 95 minutes. In addition to the principals, we also get, among others, Elizabeth McGovern as Col. Berman's scheming wife, Gabriel Mann as the naive PFC forced to room with Elwood by Lee, Brian Delate as Berman's stuffy rival Col. Marshall, Haluk Bilginer as local drug dealer "The Turk," and Cool Runnings' Leon Robinson as Elwood's token black sidekick, Stoney.

As for Phoenix, it's good to see him finally living up to the hype. A thieving drug dealer who undermines the military is a tough character to make sympathetic, but while you may not endorse or condone the actions of Ray Elwood, Phoenix will make you like him at least a little. It helps that Elwood's no longer a junkie and a killer, as O'Connor had him. Paquin's character would've been more fun if, as in the novel, she were an amputee and frequently naked -- the minor disfigurement the filmmakers have given her doesn't quite have the poignancy or surrealism of a missing limb -- but Paquin gets into the rebellious brat role with relish.

Without spoiling any details, a quick word about the ending: Like Fight Club, it feels almost a cheat at first, and is a significant departure from the source material. On reflection, though, and a second viewing, it makes a better fit for the film than O'Connor's ambiguous cliffhanger, and though on the face of it it's a "happy" outcome, one could make a case that on a deeper level it's even more cynical than that of the book. If that kind of thing doesn't float your boat, this isn't the movie to see, but fans of the likes of Robert Altman's original M*A*S*H should be able to groove to this worthy successor.

About The Author

Luke Y. Thompson


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