“Are you safer than before Dubya was appointed?”: Buffalo Soldiers

joaquinA casualty of post-9/11 thought policing, the dark comedy Buffalo Soldiers sat on the shelf for two years so as not to offend “patriotic” sensibilities. Now, buoyed perhaps by the financial and critical success of its cellmate The Quiet American and an ever-growing disenchantment with Bush, Buffalo Soldiers makes its belated debut, and the movie was worth the wait. It’s easy, in the very first scene, to grasp why Miramax freaked out. The film opens on a dream sequence of Joaquin Phoenix’s body falling through the sky, hurtling past tall office buildings and landing with a thud. What would have seemed supremely tasteless in late 2001 now appears to be visual shorthand for the American experience: We were all dumped out of those towers by our government’s lack of preparedness.

Like most of us, the movie has a divided soul. It works best as a sophisticated comedy, full of such delicious non-sequiturs as an Army colonel (Ed Harris) chewing out an enlisted man, then immediately apologizing for his insensitive behavior. (It’s great to see Ed Harris have the time of his life in this role.) Conversely, there’s a slight excess of galley-playing shtick: a tank marauding a street fair is fine, yet the film serves up just one demolished car too many.

I must admit I relish the thought of controversy sparked by Buffalo Soldiers’ vision of the U.S. military: a wasteland of convicts and dropouts trained to kill, almost all of whom profit from black marketeering. As the media genuflect before continued (and ineffectual) U.S. presence in Iraq, the uniformed drug runners who populate this movie come as a refreshing antidote to jingoistic holiness.

Phoenix plays the ringleader of covert operations on an Army base in Stuttgart, circa 1989, and it’s the best acting he’s done yet. The air of Valley Dude insincerity that hampered his earlier roles works to his advantage here. Anna Paquin invests the underwritten ingénue part with serious verve; she made me believe that her toothy smile and curly raven hair were (almost) enough to redeem Phoenix’s amoral opportunist. The too-seldom-seen Elizabeth McGovern scores another minor victory as the colonel’s ice queen wife, and Scott Glenn satisfies as a by-the-book serviceman until a late plot twist reduces him to caricature.

If Buffalo Soldiers had ended with the stylized framing of Glenn and Phoenix in mortal embrace against an illumined night sky, the film might have been close to a masterpiece. The coda feels tacked on, as though the director thought “uplift” a necessary counter to the gallows humor that preceded.

Originally published in Vigilance, July 2003.