An awards contender for almost a week back in 2001, Buffalo Soldiers is a great little film that was completely out of step with the times. Perhaps the fresh Oscar recognition for Joaquin Phoenix will encourage an intrepid few to seek out Gregor Jordan’s subversive military comedy; it’s certainly one of the best performances of the actor’s career, with few of the mannerisms which have become synonymous with his style; he’s a straight-up leading man here, and burns the screen like a young Paul Newman.
The content is abrasive; Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a wheeler and dealer in the spirit of Milo Minderbender in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Nothing phases him; he sells all manner of drugs to bored US troops stationed in Germany, and when a group of stoners accidentally blow up a local petrol station with their tank, two American soldiers are killed in the aftermath. Elwood snaps into action, taking possession of the valuable arms trucks the soldiers were driving, and attempting to sell them. His superior, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) suspects nothing, but Robert E Lee (Scott Glenn) is onto him, and surprises Elwood by hiring a firing squad to demolish his beloved Mercedes car.
The above scene happens after Elwood enjoys an ecstasy-fuelled night with Lee’s daughter (Anna Paquin), a change of pace from his dalliance with Berman’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern); the boy is burning his candle at both ends. Buffalo Soldiers, based on Robert O’Connor’s 1993 book, has a progressive, yet transgressive attitude to drugs that pre-dates the rise of the Seth Rogan comedy. It also has a reckless, amoral feel that recalls the same period’s Trainspotting, with little regard for institutions or individuals alike. First screened at Toronto, Buffalo Soldiers must have been a hot prospect until the Sept 11th attack days later made it the diametrical opposite of the kind of sombre flag-waving audiences sought.
Nearly two decades later, Buffalo Soldiers is a pleasure to re-appraise. It identifies something both attractive and dangerous in rampant American entrepreneurism, and Elwood is a character for the ages with his blank-eyed lies and accomplished today-ism disguising an intense drive to subvert. The lack of content or originality in the Joker movie didn’t match the intensity of Phoenix’s performance, but if you really want to see him play a role that shocks, amuses and plays hard-ball with the trickiest of concept, don’t watch that, watch this. An opening image of muddy footprints across an American flag sets the mood, and the black comedy featured here is sharp, vicious and timeless.