Dir: Gregor Jordan. UK/USA. 2001. 94mins
"When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself." The Friedrich Nietzsche quote provides the philosophy behind a biting black comedy exploring the military state of mind when the awful pressures of waging war are replaced by the dangerous tedium of keeping peace. The second feature from Australian director Gregor Jordan after the award-winning Two Hands, Buffalo Soldiers is an engaging and faithful adaptation of the Robert O'Connor novel. An unexpected throwback to the heyday of irreverent anti-heroes and sacred cow satires (think M*A*S*H, The Hospital, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), the film may well seduce hip younger audiences with its anti-establishment attitudes and explosive gallows humour. Older audiences may prefer the memories of earlier, more timely attacks on the folly of armed conflict and the rank absurdity of the men empowered to wage it.
Jordan sets the tone of the film in the opening moments when the rough and tumble of a barracks room football game leaves a strung-out soldier dead on the ground to the complete indifference of his equally drug-addled colleagues. "War is hell, " advises the voice-over, "but peace is fucking boring." Boredom brings its own hell of drugs, violence, distracted superiors and reckless soldiers all struggling to kill time, fill the day and avoid the consequences. It is October 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to tumble but the members of the 317th Supply Battalion stationed at an army base outside Stuttgart have little interest in events on the wider, world stage.
Making a comfortable move from eye-catching supporting roles to centre stage, Joaquin Phoenix invests wily, wheeler-dealer Ray Elwood with enough sympathy and charm to keep the audience on his side at all times. Choosing a spell in the army over a stint in jail, Elwood has feathered a very comfortable nest for himself, working the black market, cooking up heroin and making himself indispensable to his caring but completely oblivious commanding officer Wallace Berman (Harris). A distant variation on Sgt. Bilko, he comes from a long lineage that would also include William Holden's cynical POW in Stalag 17, Steve McQueen's cooler king from The Great Escape and any number of Paul Newman rebels from Cool Hand Luke on down.
Any memorable anti-hero requires a vicious nemesis and Buffalo Soldiers has an excellent one in Scott Glenn's Sergeant Robert E Lee, a battle-hardened, granite-featured Vietnam veteran who decides to make Elwood's life a living nightmare. The two men are soon locked in a struggle for supremacy that escalates as Elwood dates Lee's teenage daughter Robyn (Paquin) and the unrelenting older man retaliates with bullets, humiliation, booby traps and chilling evidence that all his experience of combat has not gone to waste.
What he fails to recognise is the sage words of superior General Lancaster (Stockwell) who informs him that the best fighters are the ones with nothing to lose. The clash with Lee is just one fragment of a chaotic world in which Ellwood is juggling a shipment of stolen arms, a vindictive Turkish drug dealer, Berman's jealous wife and his own feelings for Robyn.
Thought-provoking and funny, Buffalo Soldiers uses shock tactic humour to make its points and has the courage of its convictions in a number of scenes where careless acts and callous individuals leave death in their wake. It refuses to sweeten the pill for mass market consumption and is all the more bracing because of it.
Tightly written and paced, it packs a lot of material into a trim running time but gives all the major characters texture and purpose. Jordan has assembled a well-balanced ensemble and is rewarded with a range of expert performances. Harris is surprisingly touching as the incompetent, henpecked commander who really isn't cut out for the demands of leadership. Glenn doesn't waste an ounce of melodrama on his psychotic veteran, playing him straight down the line and creating a sense of uncontrollable menace just through sheer presence.
Phoenix rises to the demands of a challenging role and varies himself and the character to feed off the quality of the supporting cast. Slightly cocky but never insufferable, he invites the viewer to share in the joke of his outrageous acts and encourages them to hang around as he falls victim to a world he thought he could master. Likeable, believable and understated, there is always a twinkle in his eye and a sense that anything could happen.
Prod Co: Gorilla Entertainment
Int'l sales: Good Machine International
Exec Prods: Paul Webster, Reinhard Kloss, James Schamus
Prods: Rainer Grupe, Ariane Moody
Scr: Gregor Jordan, Eric Axel Weiss, Nora MacCoby based on the novel by Robert O'Connor
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Prod des: Steven Jones-Evans
Ed: Lee Smith
Mus: David Holmes
Main cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin,Elizabeth McGovern, Dean Stockwell.