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(2003) (Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Glenn) (R)

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Drama/Comedy: An Army supply clerk's black market activities are threatened when a new superior officer sets out to ruin him at the onset of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Ray Elwood (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is a supply clerk at a U.S. Army base in Germany in the late 1980s. With nothing to kill but time, Elwood has taken advantage of the system and makes extra bucks selling Army supplies and cooking up his own heroin.

His commanding officer, Colonel Wallace Berman (ED HARRIS), is so hell-bent on making a name for himself through an ancestor that he's oblivious to Elwood's activities that include sleeping with Berman's wife (ELIZABETH MCGOVERN). Although he gets some flack from M.P. Sergeant Saad (SHEIK MAHUMD-BEY), Elwood's black market lifestyle is otherwise unencumbered.

That is, until the hard-nosed Sergeant Robert Lee (SCOTT GLENN) arrives. A stern Vietnam veteran, he isn't happy with Elwood's attitude or activities and sets out to crack down on both, even placing him with a new roommate, Knoll (GABRIEL MANN). In response, Elwood romantically pursues Lee's wild daughter, Robyn (ANNA PAQUIN), just to spite him.

As the tension rises and Elwood tries to deal with a recently received shipment of black market arms, it's only a matter of time before the tit-for-tat behavior between him and Lee turns into something far more serious.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
When it comes to the military, generals might get all of the best accolades, not to mention quarters, but it's the supply clerks who keep the wheels of the war machine greased. After all, they provide the essential provisions to everyone from top to bottom, and probably occasionally delve in the non-essential, but highly coveted as well.

In the movies, they're often portrayed doing as much or more of the latter as the former and have been played by the likes of Gary Burghoff in "M*A*S*H" and Don Rickles in "Kelly's Heroes." Now Joaquin Phoenix ("Signs," "Quills") joins that "illustrious" group in "Buffalo Soldiers."

This satirical look at the U.S. military - which has nothing to do with the post Civil War Cavalry regiment comprised of African-Americans - was supposed to open a few years back and screened right before the 9-11 attacks. With the patriotic and pro-military atmosphere that quickly developed following that, the releasing studio - Miramax - decided it probably wasn't the best time to unleash what was remotely seen as critical of the establishment, comedy or not. Now that the war in Iraq is winding down, they've apparently determined that the time is right.

Having seen the film and others of its ilk, I'm not sure what all of the fuss and/or worry was about. For starters, it's set in 1989 Germany around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall (which might seem like ancient history for some in the target audience). It's also not quite as scathing or satirical as the likes of the above films or "Three Kings," "Dr. Strangelove" or "Catch-22" in portraying the military and its men in something less than a glowing fashion.

Political correctness aside, it also isn't as good as any of those films from an artistic standpoint, although it does have its moments. With introductory and then only occasional voice-over narration from Phoenix's character, the film quickly sets the tone that a bored and non-engaged military is probably as dangerous as one in war.

That is, at least from a self-destructive mode in a time when many in the armed forces were escaping from something else rather than just wanting to serve their country. Here, indoor tackle football leads to death, drugs and tank driving prove to be a bad mix, and retribution turns ugly for all involved.

In adapting author Robert O'Connor's novel, the filmmakers - writer/director Gregor Jordan ("Two Hands") and co-writers Eric Axel Weiss ("Bongwater," "Wicked") and Nora MacCoby ("Bongwater") - have fashioned a black comedy that's moderately engaging, yet not as black, satirical or funny as it should and probably could have been.

The underlying plot, while serviceable, isn't anything remarkable or novel. In short, Phoenix's character basically runs the place until a steely Vietnam vet arrives and sets out to clean up both Elwood and his operations.

That then leads to an escalating tit-for-tat battle of wills and wits that soon involves the sergeant's army brat daughter. It also leads to a fiery finale that's a bit too overwrought to fit in with the rest of the film, even if there are other humorously macabre moments preceding it.

While few, if any of the characters are particularly likeable, most are engaging - in their own special way - and it's those and the related performances that make the film relatively easy to watch. Phoenix is near pitch-perfect as the disillusioned and thus resourceful supply clerk. Scott Glenn ("The Shipping News," "Training Day") is appropriately steely as his nemesis and Anna Paquin ("Finding Forrester," the "X-Men" movies) plays his daughter with the right touch of beguilement.

Supporting performances from the likes of Elizabeth McGovern ("The House of Mirth," "Ragtime") as an adulterous officer's wife, Gabriel Mann ("The Bourne Identity," "Summer Catch") playing a mole and Sheik Mahumd-Bey ("Mercy Streets," "Flawless") as an antagonistic and menacing MP are all solid.

It's Ed Harris ("The Hours," "A Beautiful Mind"), however, who steals the show as a bumbling Colonel who's so intent on promoting his heritage that he's oblivious to what's going on around him. Aside from Phoenix's character, his is the closest to the entertaining satire from the likes of "M*A*S*H" and "Dr. Strangelove."

Although one has to give the cast and crew credit for attempting to join the illustrious ranks of those satirical military movies, their film doesn't quite get there. Not as controversial as it's been made out to be, but also not quite as scathing or sharply funny as I would have liked, "Buffalo Soldiers" has its moments, but unfortunately not enough of them to rate higher than a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 19, 2003 / Posted August 8, 2003

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