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Assault on the peacetime Army

Buffalo Soldiers offers razor-fanged black humor about the American military going loco during peacetime. A kinetic riff on U.S. Army mores and the go-getting Yankee character, it moves so confidently and brightly that it's ticklish as well as chilling - and, in its own dark way, enthralling.

Set on a U.S. Army base in Germany at the end of the Cold War, it's about what happens when security forces become insecure in purpose and morality. Postponed initially because of 9/11, this movie actually flatters wartime service, by inference.

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If these soldiers had to face pitched battles instead of waiting for the Berlin Wall to fall, they might coalesce into a mean, muscle-bound fighting machine. But without cause for the Army's technology and command to click into place, they have too much time on their hands - and too much free space in their heads. They fill it with alcohol, drugs and get-rich-quick schemes.

The central figure, U.S. Army Specialist Roy Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), would have been a prize scrounger in a POW camp during the Second World War. Instead he's an ace illicit trader in everything from Mop 'n' Glo to armaments and heroin, focused solely on nurturing his nest egg and protecting it from snakes. He knows just how to manipulate his affable, ineffectual superior, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) - and just how to collaborate with the colonel's beautiful, unsatisfied wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

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He has the whole base wired until Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) appears, along with his inviting daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), and promptly short-circuits the works. To Elwood, Lee is terrifying because he's an honest-to-God soldier: smart, forceful, apparently incorruptible. To the audience, Lee is terrifying because he is a sadist.

The way co-writer-director Gregor Jordan has adapted Robert O'Connor's novel of the same name (Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby share credit for the script), the movie boasts the sweeping allure of a sure-footed action film and the giddy, organic bewilderment of an authentic anarchic farce. Bizarre incidents like a stoned tank crew running amok through German streets (and, in a prize symbolic moment, crushing a VW Beetle) catalyze chain reactions that culminate in real shock and awe - and explosive comedy.

Using his own research as well as O'Connor's book, Jordan pulls off several exposes without breaking a sweat, tracing connections between heavy weapons and hard drugs, then charting multicultural street rifts on and off the base - wherever turf wars and power-grabs intersect with race and ethnicity. More important, the characters keep revealing surprising facets or unsuspected depths as the actors expand on their parts.

Harris hasn't been this funny in years; he wrings an excruciating comic pathos from his character's attempt to impress a general (an unusually understated Dean Stockwell) with his Civil War roots. As a base commander, Harris' Berman has an insufficient appetite for brinkmanship and an overdeveloped sense of refinement; he's a nice man waiting to screw up. Glenn is his opposite as the toughened top kick, Sergeant Lee. With obisidian in his eyes, this sinewy actor makes Lee a martial mechanic primed for swift, merciless destruction - an old-fashioned exterminator. McGovern exudes the slightly melancholy naughtiness of a wife who knows she's smarter and spiffier than her spouse, while Paquin, as Lee's literally scarred daughter, evinces psychological savvy as well as sensual warmth.

And Phoenix, as usual, is phenomenal in the lead. He's a master of zonked humanity - a spiritual pilot light flickers in his gaze even when he witnesses atrocities. He offers the audience a route into a numbingly cruel world. Yet he doesn't sentimentalize the character. At bottom, Elwood fears only boredom, treasures only survival. And that makes him dangerous. Jordan's script gives Elwood the recurring dream of falling without a parachute through a military jet's bomb-bay doors. Stanley Kubrick advised us to stop worrying and love the bomb. Jordan brings us the hard truth that we are the bomb.

Buffalo Soldiers

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Paquin, Scott Glenn and Elizabeth McGovern

Directed by Gregor Jordan

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Rated R

Released by Miramax

Time 95 minutes

Sun Score: ****


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