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Shock and Awe

The dark Buffalo Soldiers may be one of the year's best

Military clerk Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is something of a modern-day Sergeant Bilko. Anything you need, he can get. Any scam that's possible, he'll run. Never mind the bumbling Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) who ostensibly runs the unit -- Elwood has him wrapped around his finger. There's just one major difference between the alter egos of Phoenix and the late Phil Silvers (or Steve Martin, in the unlikely event that you prefer the big-screen Bilko): Ray Elwood deals drugs, often leading to fatal consequences for those around him. He's even willing to make a buck off their deaths sometimes. Suddenly the Dixie Chicks don't sound quite so controversial.

The movie in question is Buffalo Soldiers, based on an even darker book of the same name by Robert O'Connor, and Miramax has been holding the flick in reserve since the day after they bought the distribution rights on September 10, 2001. Given the company's history of holding hot-button films in eternal limbo only to drop them altogether (much to the benefit of Lions Gate, which picked up both Dogma and O from the Brothers Weinstein under similar circumstances), it's impressive to see Buffalo Soldiers come out at all. Regardless of 9/11, this isn't a big crowd-pleasing movie -- if anything, its black-comedic, nihilistic, Nietzschean worldview resembles that of Fight Club, which garnered a rabid cult following and a fierce critical debate, but not a lot of box office green.

Also like Fight Club, it's a brilliantly made film that will be despised for the right and wrong reasons; if you don't see the humor in it any time during the first half hour, leave. Trust me. If you stay, you've passed the test -- sit back and enjoy one of the year's finest films.

Set in Germany in 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Buffalo Soldiers depicts a military we may not remember, one so unpopular to join that it obtains large numbers of recruits from the ranks of petty criminals facing jail time. This is also a pre-Gulf War I military, which, to quote Bush the Elder, has not yet "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." Faced with a rapidly thawing Cold War, the army isn't even on much of an alert -- "Soldiers with nothing to kill except time," as Elwood puts it.

So what are a bunch of bored tough guys trained for combat supposed to do? Drugs, mostly, but there are others who get their highs from violence toward one another. In one particularly memorable scene, two soldiers in a burning building slowly take turns stabbing each other in the chest with knives, rather than actually cooperating to escape in one piece. As in prison, racial groups tend to stick together and fan the flames of skin prejudice (an element more crucial to the book, but still significant here). Play your cards right, as Elwood has, and you can get fast cars, access to all the local hot spots, and a whole network of criminal associates who'll look out for you. Make one wrong play, however, and the entire set-up might just come crashing down.

In Elwood's case, it's a new player who puts things in jeopardy. New Top Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn, born to play military hard-asses) seems affable at first, but he very quickly makes it clear that business as usual will not continue under his watch. Elwood naturally takes this as a suggestion rather than an actual order, and when he figures out that bribery won't work, he decides to date the Top's comely young daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), who has some major Daddy issues of her own.

Meanwhile, some hilariously stoned tank drivers have wreaked havoc in a local town, unleashing a chain of consequences that winds up putting a massive shipment of black market state-of-the-art weaponry into Elwood's grubby hands. This might just lead to the biggest deal he's ever made, but with Lee out to screw him by any means necessary, and the regular drug trade falling apart and causing friction with militant black Muslim Sergeant Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey), you just know matters are going to get far worse.

Director-cowriter Gregor Jordan has done wonders with O'Connor's novel, playing up the humor, focusing on the plot-laden final chapters, jettisoning much of the back story, consolidating a few story lines and characters, and expanding upon various plot points in ways that make total sense. Jordan and his co-scribes Eric Axel Weiss and Nora Maccoby deserve an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay, not just for making palatable O'Connor's depressing tale, but also for introducing and clearly delineating a large ensemble of characters within the tight span of 95 minutes. In addition to the principals, we also get, among others, Elizabeth McGovern as Colonel Berman's scheming wife, Gabriel Mann as the naive PFC forced to room with Elwood, Brian Delate as Berman's stuffy rival Colonel Marshall, Haluk Bilginer as local drug dealer "The Turk" and Cool Runnings' Leon Robinson as Elwood's token black sidekick Stoney.

As for Phoenix, it's good to see him finally living up to the hype. A thieving drug dealer who undermines the military is a tough character to make sympathetic, but while you may not endorse or condone the actions of Elwood, Phoenix will make you like him at least a little. It helps that he's no longer a junkie and a killer, as O'Connor had him. Paquin's character would've been more fun if, as in the novel, she were an amputee and frequently naked -- the minor disfigurement the filmmakers have given her doesn't quite have the poignancy or surrealism of a missing limb -- but she gets into the rebellious brat role with relish.

Without spoiling any details, a quick word about the ending -- like Fight Club, it feels almost like a cheat at first, and is a significant departure from the source material. On reflection, though, and after a second viewing, it makes a better fit for the film than O'Connor's ambiguous cliff-hanger, and though on the face of it this is a "happy" outcome, one could make a case that on a deeper level it's even more cynical than the book. If that kind of thing doesn't float your boat, this isn't the movie to see, but fans of the likes of Robert Altman's original M*A*S*H should surely be able to groove to this worthy successor.

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