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There's a subversively sly, black little vibe that runs entertainingly through Buffalo Soldiers, a mostly politically incorrect new military satire. It follows the exploits of a group of screw-up misfits making drugs and killing time in the U.S. Army in West Germany, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Delayed from release for nearly two years, due to an unwelcome post 9/11 climate, this gutsy comedy will surely be in and out of theaters faster than anyone will realize it just may be the year's funniest comedy.
Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix, superb) is a likeable enough guy - a misfit clerk in service of a profoundly foolish boss, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris, wry and funny). Sweet-faced Ray spends his days black-marketing Mop-N-Glow, and his nights cooking up heroin right under Berman's nose, when he's not bedding his boss' sexed up, intellectually superior wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
When Elwood and his buddies inadvertently find themselves in possession of some stolen arms, they hatch a plan to make an illegal sale for a huge windfall. The plan works fine until hard-ass new Sergeant Lee (Scott Glen) shows up, using every imaginable opportunity to take down Elwood and his business. Complicating matters is Lee's sensual daughter (Anna Paquin, appealing), forming an immediate connection with Elwood that causes major waves and even worse retribution.
Along the way we are encouraged to (and frequently do) laugh at all manner of atrocities, from the slapstick shenanigans of stolen arms, cooked-up drugs, the burning bodies of American soldiers and an all-out apocalypse which concludes the film.
This is a daring film - very funny, uncompromising, unsentimental and always entertaining. Australian director Gregor Jordan has a lot of guts making this film about botched U.S. military forces, and though some might perceive it as an anti-American statement, it's best to just focus on how funny the film really is, and relish the light touch of the cast.
Joaquin Phoenix is an anomaly among young actors today - he's not afraid to underplay and value the silences and hush his dialogue in a soft-spoken manner. He watches, listens, plots - all with such good-natured, cherub-like innocence that we can't help rooting for him.
What's most entertaining about the film is the relish with which actors not quite known for comedy - Ed Harris and Elizabeth McGovern, principally - turn in such light and comically on target work. As the brains of the marriage, McGovern, too often absent from American films, comically shines, never more than when lecturing her husband about a misbegotten plan to one-up a rival colonel. And Harris plays a running joke about family lineage with a dumbly sly appeal that reminds us, on the heels of his great performance in last year's The Hours, how versatile and complex an actor he is.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the material is so pitch-black and richly on target that the actors can't help but be effective.
Buffalo Soldiers is one of the year's best comedies.
Violence, Sex, Language and Drugs