"War is hell, but peace is boring," Ray Elwood drolly narrates in the first few minutes of Buffalo Soldiers. Nietzsche took that thought a step further: "Where there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself." We hear that one from Elwood, too, in the last few minutes of the film, once the point has already been made. Several times over.
Elwood, as he likes to be called, is a US Army Specialist who would seem to be in an excellent position for a resourceful young man with an entrepreneurial bent. He reports only to Colonel Wallace Berman, a basically good guy, easily snowed, so Elwood, in charge of supplies for the base in peace-ridden West Germany, pretty much has a free hand.
"A thousand gallons of Mop'N'Glo?" asks the Colonel. "Cleanliness is next to godliness," is all it takes to get the Colonel to sign off on the order. Moments later, Elwood is selling the "hot Scheisse" to a German black marketeer who's evidently got the low-down on a band of Hausfraus eager to get their rubber-gloved hands on the stuff.
Sounds pretty tame, doesn't it. But Elwood's also dealing in heroin. Doesn't shoot up himself, mind you, but heroin's a fine business to be in when you're surrounded by hundreds of guys in the prime of their youth with nothing to do. All suited up and no war to fight.
Oh, and before the Mop'N'Glo scene, a guy dies. It's an accident, a rather gruesome one that wouldn't have happened if the private weren't stoned out of his gourd, and it's an event that, all alone, would make for the foundation of an earnest film like A Few Good Men. But we're somewhere near Catch 22 territory here, so the sudden death is a mere inconvenience to be brushed off. Comically.
It takes a while to figure out what sort of tone director Gregor Jordan aims to set. The dialogue isn't terribly convincing or funny, but the set-ups and sequences are so outlandish, yet played so straight, you can't help but wonder where Jordan plans to eventually go once he catches his rhythm. And that happens in the tank-on-the-loose scene. It's not giving away too much to let you know that, relatively early on, during maneuvers out in the field, one tank, manned by three soldiers so juiced up they can barely keep their eyes open, gets lost. It goes barreling through a marketplace in the nearby German town and eventually flattens all the pumps at a gas station.
More soldiers pull up, wondering what the hell a tank is doing sitting on top of a civilian gas station. Then the underground tanks blow. The fireball envelopes the innocent soldiers who've come to check it out. They're left charred on the street as the tank, still burning, though the unscathed buzzed out guys inside are completely unaware of it, rolls on and, by pure coincidence, manages to rejoin the maneuvers.
Charred US soldiers stretched out on friendly ground in peacetime. Do you laugh? Not at that shot, no. At the scene as a whole? It's hard to help it. Jordan keeps placing the audience in similar situations that tend to make it extremely uncomfortable with itself and its own reactions. In Germany, where Buffalo Soldiers opened last week under the title Army Go Home, many in the audience will likely remember incidents when a US tank or two actually did go on a rampage. The soldier inside one that blew a bridge away either cracked after months of being on the front line of the Cold War or, more likely, was under the influence.
More likely because, as Buffalo Soldiers makes abundantly clear, some of these guys didn't really grok their situation or its geopolitical significance. "Where is the Berlin wall?" one asks from deep within his own private haze. "In Berlin, you dumb..." "Yeah, yeah, but, like, what country?"
Before you get the impression that Buffalo Soldiers is just a darker, bloodier version of, say, Stripes, let me hasten to add that there is an engaging story here once it finally gets rolling, but better, there's also a batch of terrific characters portrayed by a stellar cast who seem to have had a marvelous time doing this movie. Beginning, of course, with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives Ray Elwood a detached, cool glaze over his eyes even as he manages to stay smart enough to keep ahead of the game. Until he stumbles and falls in way over his head. The brief flashes of fear that flare up then are the only hint throughout that this could possibly be the same guy who played the blood-thirsty Emperor Commodus in Gladiator. Otherwise, Elwood rarely seems to bother much about what his future will bring, even if it's going to involve a slow and painful demise in the relatively near future.
If that were to come about, it would come about at the bare hands of Sergeant Robert Lee, played with bone-chilling conviction by Scott Glenn. When the camera peers into Glenn's eyes, it finds nothing and everything at once, and the overall effect is terrifying. Bottomless pits of death, those eyes are, but at the same time, somehow, there's something burning in there.
At the other end of the scale, we find Ed Harris's Colonel Berman. We suspect but don't completely realize what a buffoon he is until Mrs. Berman, played with relish by Elizabeth McGovern, practically says flat out to his face that she'll be humping Elwood all afternoon, and of course, he has no idea. Oddly enough, though, we end up rooting for Colonel Berman, sweating bullets right along with him as he clumsily flubs his bid for a promotion from General Lancaster (Dean Stockwell in a nice but brief turn).
Gregor Jordan, an Australian who first drew international attention with his Tarantino-flavored thriller Two Hands, perfectly captures the color scheme of late 80s Germany. He leans a little too heavily on the music, maybe in the hopes that it'll keep the adrenaline flowing in those early scenes when little else will, but eventually, you'll hardly notice. His greatest strength is clearly working with actors, even (and of course, maybe especially) down to the minor roles, such as Gabriel Mann's.
Mann plays the new recruit who, after being beaten to a bloody mess for having wandered onto the wrong side of the base, relates how his father still meets up with his World War II buddies once a year for a back yard barbecue. You can see the horror in his eyes as he realizes that not only is that never going to happen in his own life, but that he's somehow landed in Hell (which will be all too literally realized soon enough). Elwood listens to this and the only solace he can offer is to help clean up his wounds. Elwood pulls out a single band-aid and places it somewhat aimlessly in the center of the entire side of the face that's been scraped raw. There. A band-aid. Again, it's played so straight, it takes the audience a few moments to realize that that's all Elwood's going be doing for the guy. Funny? Sure, but just as surely, not to everyone.
Miramax's jitters about this movie are understandable to a degree. Releasing it would not have been the right move just weeks after 9/11, but a year and a half later seems a bit on the safe side. Trial balloon showings in New York and LA are slated for March; we'll see whether it rolls out afterwards. Playing it safe certainly isn't what made Miramax an indie powerhouse when the Weinsteins first set up shop. It's only become the modus operandi since Miramax got into bed with Disney.
Miramax is also holding The Quiet American and People I Know. The first is based on the novel by Graham Greene, a story that involves a soldier laying the groundwork in the 1950s for future US involvement in Vietnam. Interestingly, the director is another Australian, Phillip Noyce, and praise has been lavished on the performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. The second stars Al Pacino and is set in a New York City run by a right-wing mayor and gangs of corrupt politicians. And speaking of Gangs... And so on.
There is a time for healing after a severe wound, of course, a time not to go picking at it. But there's also a time for taking an unreserved look at it again, particularly from an angle that might hurt a little. That time is probably a lot sooner than Miramax thinks.
Interviews conducted by Nina Rehfeld.