Buffalo Soldiers

As we are told in “Buffalo Soldiers,” war is hell, but peace is BORING. And boredom, as you know, leads to mischief.

There is mischief aplenty in “Buffalo Soldiers,” a film that begins as a cynically funny dark comedy but soon falls victim to a glut of subplots and unfocused writing. It opens in 1989 in West Germany, where American soldiers are stationed with very little to occupy them. They are “fighting the dull fight,” according to Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), the wily, resourceful private who uses the relentless downtime to his financial advantage. He requisitions more supplies than his unit needs and sells the leftovers to the Germans, spending the money he gets on TVs, stereos and other perks that turn his army-base room into a bachelor’s dream den.

Elwood has the ear of his superior, Col. Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), a slightly goofy officer who desperately wants to be viewed as a forceful military leader, despite serving a) in peacetime and b) as head of a unit whose job, even in war, is mostly to clean up. Elwood is also having an affair with Berman’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern), though the film uses that detail primarily to establish Elwood’s character — he’s a magnificent bastard — rather than as a plot device.

Elwood’s dreamworld of selling goods and drugs (which he also coordinates the manufacture of) comes to a halt when a new sergeant, the no-nonsense Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) arrives. In the grand tradition of anti-establishment films like “Catch 22,” “M*A*S*H” and “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Lee is older and craggier than the youthful, smiling Elwood, and an instant dislike between them begins. It doesn’t help that Elwood starts dating Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin); in fact, to irritate Lee is why he starts dating her.

The film’s opening act is very strong, with several outrageously funny moments breezily directed by the fairly new Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan. There are some sudden deaths, and they’re played for laughs — caustic, satirical laughs, but laughs nonetheless.

Then a curious thing happens. The film has started so many plates spinning that it can’t possibly keep up with them all. The battle between Lee and Elwood seems to be escalating, each retaliating bigger than before. Elwood and his cronies stumble into the business of black-market weapons dealing. Berman seeks to prove himself as a capable leader by staging a scrimage against another unit. Elwood’s nerdy new roommate gets beaten up by the military police. Elwood has a fear of heights. He might be in love with Robyn. What is going ON here?

This is too much for one film, and in dealing with it all, the script (by Jordan, Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby, based on Robert O’Connor’s novel), loses its punch-in-the-gut humor. I like many of the performances, especially Ed Harris’ — I would like to have seen that character’s story — but if ever a film got so bogged down it forgot what its point was, it’s this one. C+

C+ (1 hr., 40 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, brief strong sexuality, some moderate violence, some drug use.)