Troubled times have always been fertile ground for political satire. Or least they were once upon a time at the movies. Given the current climate -- or at least the apolitical tenor of most films -- it's hard to believe that Preston Sturges actually poked fun at patriotism in "Hail the Conquering Hero" while World War II raged. Or that Stanley Kubrick managed to unleash "Dr. Strangelove" in the midst of the Cold War and that Robert Altman's scabrous "MASH" hit it big as U.S. bombs rained down on Vietnam.
What's less hard to believe, given today's climate and the contretemps over Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," is that since buying "Buffalo Soldiers" in September 2001, Miramax Films repeatedly delayed the satire's release. In the aftermath of 9/11 and in light of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the company was concerned about distributing a film that shows the American military in an unflattering light. What Miramax didn't get is that it isn't the military that's under attack.
Set on a U.S. Army base in Germany around the fall of the Berlin Wall, "Buffalo Soldiers" opens with supply clerk Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) cogitating on enlisted life. Tucked into a corner of a barracks as the rest of the guys toss a ball around, he characterizes most of his fellow soldiers as little more than "criminals and high school dropouts."
From the looks of his comrades in arms -- a motley crew of drug addicts and dealers, marauding bullies and other human detritus -- he's certainly got the criminal part right. Steeped in apathy and corruption and run by idiots, the base is an outpost of America at its very worst, where life is divided almost exclusively between the exploiters and the exploited.
Ironically detached and nominally sympathetic, Elwood falls into the first camp while almost everyone else wallows in the second. Among the more grievously exploited is Elwood's commanding officer, Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), an avuncular sort given to dreaming about Napa vineyards. He's blissfully unaware that Elwood is lining his pockets with stolen supplies and that when his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) borrows his aide, she's requisitioning more than his driving skills. Neither does Berman know that Elwood and his buddies (Leon Robinson and Michael Pena) are manufacturing heroin on the base and that the military police, led by a sadistic thug (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), are distributing the drugs with all the cruel force and savvy of the underworld's finest.
The freewheeling corruption is mildly entertaining, but if it also once had a point -- the film is based on Robert O'Connor's novel -- it's definitely AWOL now. Director Gregor Jordan, who wrote the screenplay with Eric Axel Weiss and Nora MacCoby, tries to put an ironic spin on the quandary of soldiers without a cause, but because the movie doesn't have any real politics -- just a few funny gags and sarcasm -- the satire never jells. The first President Bush smiles down from a framed photograph, the Berlin Wall crumbles on television and one lunatic (a fine Scott Glenn) crows proudly to Elwood about his fun Vietnam times. Yet if these pieces are meant to form some larger commentary about American militarism, the message remains too faint to hear.
O'Connor named his novel after the Civil War cavalry regiments partly composed of freed slaves, because they were men charged with fighting "a war of extermination against" Native Americans. ("This is the way armies work," O'Connor told one newspaper. "The people fighting and dying aren't the ones benefiting.") Whatever you think of the novelist's take on the modern military, at least his book is unabashedly political. In Jordan's adaptation, though, the soldiers fight one another and sometimes even expire, not because there's anything wrong with the military but because they're functional mercenaries -- bored, greedy, criminally minded and, well, poor.
Even Phoenix, an actor who can make an incestuous-minded Roman emperor seem sensitive, can't smooth over political nihilism this unsavory.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, drug content, strong language and some sexuality.
Times guidelines: Strong violence, including some incinerated bodies, a gun battle, beatings; language, drug use.
Joaquin Phoenix...Ray Elwood
Ed Harris...Col. Berman
Scott Glenn...Robert Lee
Anna Paquin...Robyn Lee
Elizabeth McGovern...Mrs. Berman
Miramax Films and FilmFour present with Odeon Pictures in association with Good Machine International and Grosvenor Park a Gorilla Entertainment/Strange Fiction production, released by Miramax Films. Director Gregor Jordan. Writers Gregor Jordan, Eric Axel Weiss, Nora MacCoby. Based on the novel by Robert O'Connor. Producers Rainer Grupe, Ariane Moody. Director of photography Oliver Stapleton. Production designer Steven Jones-Evans. Editor Lee Smith. Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux. Music David Holmes. Casting Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
At the ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; Mann's Criterion 6, 1313 3rd St., Santa Monica, (310) 248-MANN #019; Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd.,