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Prince of thieves: Joaquin Phoenix in Buffalo Soldiers. Courtesy photo
Let the buyer beware of knockoffs, incompatible parts, and defective merchandise in 'Buffalo Soldiers'

Freed slaves who joined the Army and served with valor after the Civil War were known as "Buffalo Soldiers." But Australian director Gregor Jordan's film, whose original working title was Army Go Home, has less to do with military heroes than uniformed hoodwinkers. Although Buffalo Soldiers was completed in 2001, Miramax postponed its release because of 9-11 and again because of the war in Iraq. Fears of offending patriotic sensibilities were fulfilled by hostile reaction to an advertising poster - since withdrawn - portraying Joaquin Phoenix flashing a peace sign beneath the slogan "Steal All That You Can Steal."

A portrait of the peacetime Army as a den of thieves, Buffalo Soldiers is not so much political as opportunistic, like the scoundrel characters of its 317th Supply Battalion stationed outside Stuttgart in 1989, during the days before the Berlin Wall comes down. The men are swindlers, bigots, psychotics, and ignoramuses. Like a black market peddler, the film tries to profit off whatever comes to hand - odd-lot pieces of farce, satire, psychological drama, and thriller. Let the buyer beware of knockoffs, incompatible parts, and defective merchandise.

Dir. Gregor Jordan; writ. Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby, Gregor Jordan, based on a book by Robert O'Connor; feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin, Elizabeth McGovern, Michael Peña (R)
Specialist Ray Elwood (Phoenix), prince of thieves in the 317th, the narrator of the proceedings, joined the U.S. Army in order to avoid six months in prison for stealing a car. According to his account (which contradicts official statistics that show higher levels of education and motivation in soldiers since the end of the draft), the all-volunteer army is a dazed and confused collection of criminals and high school dropouts. Bored by his assignment in peacetime Germany, Elwood is stimulated by the challenge of duping his commanding officer, Colonel Wallace Berman (Harris), a genial dimwit who longs to retire to a Napa vineyard. Elwood steals and sells government property from under Berman's nose and sleeps with his wife (McGovern) on the colonel's own bed. On the side, he also operates a lucrative crack lab.

Sergeant Robert Lee (Glenn), a combat-tested veteran, gets wise to Elwood's scams and devises his destruction, especially after the young rogue attempts to use Lee's beautiful daughter, Robyn (Paquin), to taunt his tormentor. The military base, like the film's plot, blows up when Elwood intercepts a large caché of weapons and attempts to make a killing from it.

Elwood starts out as Sergeant Bilko with bad dreams, an enlisted wheeler-dealer beset by nightmares of falling. But he is too affectless a fellow to derive much zest from his schemes of besting the establishment or to offer the viewer much emotional freight. Unlike dark comedies of military incompetence and insubordination such as Catch-22 or M*A*S*H, Buffalo Soldiers takes little pleasure in the spectacle of shenanigans on a government base. And, beyond the satisfactions of seeing Ed Harris and Scott Glenn craft adroit performances, it gives little, too. A sequence in which a tank operated by stoned Keystone grunts runs amok on civilian streets is rueful, not hilarious.

Images of George Bush the first and the Berlin Wall hint at larger purposes beyond mere roguery. "There's always a war somewhere, someplace, with someone," declares Elwood in one of several portentous pronouncements. He echoes the Nietzschean epigram that in the absence of war men attack themselves. But instead of developing and sustaining its vision of life as a war of all against all, Buffalo Soldiers is content to make random blasts with stolen weapons. •

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