On an American army base in West Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ray Elwood is making a killing refining incoming heroin for the base's drug dealers, until the unbendable Sergeant Lee arrives to bring the troops in line.
After two-and-a-half years of mysteriously going awol, Australian director Gregor Jordan's military satire finally yomps onto the big screen. Set firmly in the tradition of MAS*H and Catch 22, Buffalo Soldiers is a deliriously dark, caustic romp, which gleefully depicts the American army as venal, corrupt, incompetent and stupid. And that's just for starters.
How on earth this is going to play in the United States remains to be seen. At its Sundance premiere, one enraged patriot lobbed a bottle at the screen, though, like a smart bomb, it went awry and hit an old gentleman in Row 3 on the head. They obviously didn't get the joke then, because Buffalo Soldiers is one of the sharpest, hippest, funniest films of the year so far.
Essentially Bilko meets Trainspotting, Jordan's second film (falling between Heath Ledger vehicles Two Hands and Ned Kelly) features a troika of vigorous performances. The always reliable Ed Harris takes the role of loveable but inept Battalion Commander Wallage Berman, a myopic officer more interested in establishing his genealogical connection to a war hero with the appealing monicker 'The Iron Boar', while Scott Glenn is a terrifying picture of grinning, self-righteous sadism as hard-ass Sgt Robert Lee. But it's Joaquin Phoenix, rapidly becoming one of cinema's most versatile and likeable actors, who manages to defuse a little of the bleakness as Ray, the battalion secretary who appropriates most of the supplies for himself and spends his spare time providing pharmacological R&R for the bored GIs. Think Radar O'Reilly with added heroin.
Certainly there's the odd uncertain moment. The movie has difficulty switching gears between its lighter, almost sitcom-ish moments and the nihilistic orgy it becomes towards the end. And a few of the set pieces - such as a tank going out of control and ploughing through a German town - though entertaining, may be a little too 'John Landis' for some people's tastes. But despite these minor wobbles, Buffalo Soldiers remains a piece of glorious, provocative mischief.
Solid performances, fearless screenplay and efficient direction make this the must-see non-blockbuster of the summer.