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Film review: Buffalo Soldiers

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Joaquin Phoenix gives terrific performance in "Buffalo Soldiers."

Joaquin Phoenix gives terrific performance in “Buffalo Soldiers.”

It's ironic that in today's considerably more cynical times, a film like "Buffalo Soldiers" is seen as being anti-American or unpatriotic, while a film like "MASH" is now seen as good old-fashioned all-American fare.

If anything, "MASH" is far more scathing in its indictment of authority figures and governmental bureaucracy. And for the time, its depiction of alcohol abuse and sexual hijinks in the U.S. Army were probably more scandalous than anything in "Buffalo Soldiers."

Which is not to say the two films are of equal quality. Obviously the 1970 movie (which spawned the even more successful television series) is a far better crafted, more cohesive work. But they do have some things in common, not the least of which is an irreverence for the Armed Forces.

And while "Buffalo Soldiers" has its moments, it stumbles along the way and fumbles the ending, taking the easy way out.

Based on a best-selling novel by Robert O'Connor, the story is set in 1989 and follows Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), company clerk for a platoon stationed in West Germany.

Ray is a former small-time crook who has seized on the opportunity to make a quick buck by selling off the base's supplies to the black market, and also by manufacturing and selling heroin. All of which is going on under the nose of his rather clueless commanding officer (Ed Harris).

However, things are about to change in a hurry with the arrival of Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn), a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense career man who has no intentions of putting up with Ray's shenanigans. So Ray tries to get Lee's goat by dating his daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin). But then the unthinkable happens — he actually starts falling for her.

Among the film's many problems is a mean-spiritedness and viciousness that audiences may find off-putting. Also, the ending seems like something of a cheat after everything else that occurs.

Still, there is a terrific lead performance by Phoenix, whose character is so oily that we should dislike him. Phoenix also has some believable chemistry with Paquin.

On the supporting side, it's nice to see Harris play a less intense character than usual. And Glenn brings the seriousness and weight that his role requires.

"Buffalo Soldiers" is rated R for violence (beatings, gunplay and explosive mayhem), frequent use of strong sexual profanity, strong drug content (heroin manufacturing, as well as some use of ecstacy), crude sexual talk and use of vulgar slang terms, two brief sex scenes and brief gore. Running time: 98 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com