On a U.S. Army base in Stuttgart, West Germany, during 1989, Battalion Clerk Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) has a profitable line in black market goods to keep him occupied in peace time. The soldiers are always looking for something to fill their days, and drugs are as a good a way as any - Elwood is also a heroin dealer to the troops. One day, when playing a game of football indoors, one of the men is accidentally killed because of a rough tackle, so the men throw him out of a top storey window to make it look as if he's fallen off the roof while fixing an aerial. He's not the first casualty of peace, and he won't be the last.
Actually given a wider release in 2003 due to the political climate, this black comedy was written by Eric Axel Weiss, Nora Maccoby and the director Gregor Jordan, and takes a sardonic view of Army life. "War is hell," says Elwood in voiceover, "but peace is fucking boring." With no one to fight, the soldiers turn on each other, as Elwood finds out when his shady deals are investigated by the hard-nosed Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn). When a tank goes out of control on manoeuvers due to the inebriated state of the men inside, the result is one petrol station destroyed and two soldiers, who stopped their trucks to see what was going on, killed in the explosion.
Opportunity rears its head when Elwood and his comrades are next on the scene, and they take the trucks, which are filled with arms, to sell on the black market. Up until now, Elwood has lived in a bubble of complacency, but with this deal he is in over his head, and has to use all his wits to outsmart Sergeant Lee. I've heard Buffalo Soldiers described as the dark side of Sergeant Bilko, and Elwood's machinations are certainly devious, the tone wryly amusing when it's not being serious in a "should we be laughing at this?" kind of fashion.
The battle of wills between Elwood and Lee steps up a gear when Elwood takes a fancy to Lee's daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), at first to get one up on the Sergeant, but later because he's fallen in love with her - finally he's impressed. Lee retaliates by using Elwood's new car for target practice, and the whole competition spirals out of control. The actors are all excellent, not just the initially smug Phoenix and dangerous Glenn, but also Ed Harris as the mild mannered general of the base, who's being cuckolded by his wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
The world Buffalo Soldiers depicts is one of men who are fired up for combat, but resorting to power games amongst themselves that become violent. Not just beatings, but resorting to murder as well. They are so wrapped up in their own obsessions with domination that they don't even know if they're in East Germany or West Germany. The humour is edgy, as with the soldier who died at the start, found filled with drugs - including a birth control pill he took by mistake. But there are the odd notes that don't quite hit the mark: the romance, for example, is out of place amongst the cynicism, and the explosive climax is too contrived to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That apart, Buffalo Soldiers skillfully shows that the peace can be just as crazy as the war. Music by David Holmes.