But then top sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives and lays down some new laws. He intends to clean up the base and he immediately pegs Elwood as a source of the problem. Elwood thinks he can simply "work a deal" with Lee but he underestimates his new opponent. When Elwood finally realizes that Lee won't play along, he decides to take a different tact-he throws down the gauntlet and seduces Lee's rebellious daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin). The two men are now heading for a showdown that's more serious than Elwood anticipated. The situation grows more complicated when Elwood decides to sell $5 million in stolen arms to a Turkish drug dealer and then discovers that he really loves Lee's daughter.
Based on the novel by Robert O' Connor, Buffalo Soldiers is like M*A*S*H (that's the Robert Altman film and not the TV series) for the Reagan/Bush era generation that never knew a war like Vietnam. Both films offer a slap in the face to the establishment and display irreverent, savage satire. But what's interesting is how they differ and how those differences reflect our changing times.
Although M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War, it most definitely was a film about Vietnam. The difference between Elwood and the anti-heroes of M*A*S*H i s that the doctors in M*A*S*H had a cause-they were against the war-and all their acts of rebellion, no matter how silly, were to point out the absurdity of war and the military. And despite their drinking, womanizing and lack of respect for authority, they were motivated by both morality and compassion when it came to valuing human life. In Buffalo Soldiers, there's a similar lack of respect for authority and desire to point out the absurdity of the military but there's no moral cause here. Elwood's defiance of authority is not meant as an anti-war statement because there is no war for him to protest. The only thing he-or anyone for that matter-is for is himself. It's not so much that Elwood is an amoral person but rather that he operates in an amoral universe. His commander is only out for advancement; Lee is a soldier who enjoys killing and will do so whether he has the cover of war or not; and the various other people in Elwood's circle are just taking their cue from the entrepreneurial mantra of the Reagan-era to make money. So Elwood's behavior doesn't stand out as particularly corrupt within this context. But what does make him stand out-and here's where he displays a kindred spirit to Hawkeye and Trapper John-is his clear-eyed, sardonic take on all that goes on. He's like the only sane man because he recognizes the absurdities around him.
Altman used M*A*S*H to criticize the war and politics of the 70s, and similarly director Gregor Jordan uses Buffalo Soldiers as a means of commenting on America in the 80s. Jordan (who's actually Australian) uses the microcosm of the military base as emblematic of the problems in America as a whole. In the press materials, Jordan notes the irony of having an "essentially amoral character [Elwood] take on the role of an essentially moral - and truthful - critique. [He] exposes the hypocrisy of the myths we tell ourselves about the glories of war and power."
Elwood, who provides the film with voiceover narration, never tries to excuse his own behavior or elevate himself above the situation. He seems more like an omniscient observer who tells all and spares no one not even himself. While others seem motivated by ambition, Elwood seems to take only a casual interest in the financial gains of his black marketeering. He seems more motivated by ennui than greed, and engineers all his scams to create entertaining challenges. And when he takes on Lee, that too seems motivated by a need to distract himself from boredom, only this time there are some very real and inescapable consequences.
Buffalo Soldiers benefits from a cunning script Eric Axel Weiss and Nora Maccoby (the writing team behind the indie comedy Bongwater ). They give Elwood sharply written narration and manage to blend the comic and the tragic with compelling results. Jordan also deserves credit for maintaining a tricky tone. He wants us to laugh-and we frequently do-but he wants the laughter to have bite-which it does. He wants us to like Elwood but he doesn't want to gloss over his flaws. And Jordan succeeds in making Buffalo Soldiers that rare thing, an effective social and political satire. He lets us know that satire is a primary target with his opening shot that pays homage to Dr. Strangelove, one of the greatest satires of all time. Jordan's opening shot of a plane's bomb bay doors opening to the earth below recalls Stanley Kubrick's closing shot of Slim Pickins riding a bomb to the planet's destruction. But in Buffalo Soldiers, it's not a bomb but Elwood dropping to destruction.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers his best performance yet as Elwood. He has a laid back demeanor that could almost be described as a drug induced calm. He's amazingly well adapted to surveying a situation and determining how to work it to his best advantage. It's a fluid performance that allows Elwood to adjust to any situation without showing much more than a ripple on his carefully composed surface. Although he never tries to ingratiate himself with the audience, Phoenix does manage to win us over.
Buffalo Soldiers (rated R for violence, drug use, language and sexual content) is a funny, hard-edged satire that was kept on the shelf for two years as the studio wrestled with concerns about how to market an irreverent film about the military during hyped-up patriotic times. But gratefully the film has arrived and its insolent attitude is most welcome and its message chillingly funny.