Here's a case of really bad timing.
A film about American soldiers making themselves unpopular overseas premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2001. It's dark, funny and smart, and Miramax snaps it up immediately.
Three days later, black comedies that depict U.S. soldiers as sociopathic misfits fall out of demand, and it's shelved until further notice.
Well, further notice is here. And now, in the after-muddle of Gulf War II, Buffalo Soldiers is as much an artifact as a movie, its cheerful impiety about the U S of A both refreshing and oddly nostalgic.
Based on Robert O'Connor's 1992 novel, it casts Joaquin Phoenix as Ray Elwood, a supply clerk stationed in Germany at the end of the Cold War. To stave off the crushing boredom of military life in peacetime, he dabbles in the black market, peddling everything from floor polish to heroin.
His commanding officer (Ed Harris) is a vapid but gentle narcissist who fails to see the corruption under his nose. His nemesis ( Scott Glenn ) is a dangerously zealous sergeant who wishes the Vietnam War were still going on.
Elwood's comrades in arms are junkies, dropouts and criminals who've joined the army to escape prison or welfare. They don't know what they're doing in Germany, and don't care. When they see the Berlin Wall coming down on TV, one of them asks whether the wall is in East or West Germany. They decide it's West. "Then where are we?" he demands.
One of the film's high points comes when three drug-ravaged soldiers, nodding out in their tank, get lost on a routine training manoeuvre and demolish the better part of a village. It's no coincidence that the title of the film's German release was Army Go Home.
The bumbling, corrupt characters and the undertone of amused despair are familiar from M*A*S*H and Catch-22. But with its casual violence and kick-ass soundtrack, Buffalo Soldiers is darker and more macho than either.
That's not to say it's dumb or overly grim. It moves at a laid-back lope, carried gracefully by the cocky, charming Phoenix and punctuated every so often by a really good explosion. Even the bombast isn't gratuitous; it all feeds into the elegantly convoluted plot, which centres around two truckloads of stolen guns and 40 kilos of morphine.
As serviceable as the machismo is, when it fails, it fails big. There's a love story that's essential to the narrative, but they flub the girl (Anna Paquin) completely.
In O'Connor's book, she's a one-armed kleptomaniac with a taste for skag, and her relationship with the criminal-minded Elwood makes sense. Here, they've cleaned her up and made her into the sunny girl-next-door with a rebellious streak and some conveniently hidden scars. She shows the hero how to love, teaches him to confront his deepest fears and generally slows things down to a sticky limp whenever she's around.
The film's other great flaw is the tacked-on happy ending, which is so transparent and cheesy that they might as well have added a disclaimer to the effect that market research refused to let the film screen without it.
But there's more than enough satisfyingly clever action here to make up for the occasional false note.
Welcome back, military satire.