Grade: B-

Director Gregor Jordan follows in the footsteps of Robert Altman, Mike Nichols and Stanley Kubrick with “Buffalo Soldiers,” a darkly comic view of the American military in the vein of “M.A.S.H.,” “Catch-22” and “Dr. Strangelove.” The time frame in this instance, however, is the post-Vietnam era of the late seventies, and the locale western Germany, where a demoralized peacetime force engages in largely futile Cold War exercises. The central figure is Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming scoundrel (not unlike, say, William Holden in “Stalag 17”) who, as company supply clerk, plays on the ineptitude of his oblivious commander (Ed Harris) to steal goods for sale to black market entrepreneurs. Elwood is also in league with the gang of surly African-American MPs who supply the troops with drugs, “cooking” the raw stuff into saleable form, and when a shipment of weapons falls into his hands as the result of a disaster during tank maneuvers, he plans to make his fortune by selling them to unsavory local arms merchants.

Elwood’s plans are threatened, however, by the arrival of a hard-nosed top sergeant (Scott Glenn), who takes an instant dislike to the schemer and makes it his business to cut him down to size. The relationship between the two worsens still further when Elwood decides to take up with the maniacally protective sergeant’s nubile daughter (Anna Paquin). The disappearance of some of the MPs’ drugs causes more trouble.

Writer-director Jordan, who along with two other scribes fashioned the script from Robert O’Connor’s novel, tells Elwood’s story with sharpness and economy, and he happily resists the urge to soften the mood in the later stages–if anything, the proceedings get rougher in the closing reels, and there’s no last-minute redemption at hand. That may turn off a great many viewers, but the sourness–though rather too glib–is certainly part of a consistent vision, and you have to admire Jordan for following it through to the bitter (not bittersweet) end. As Elwood, Phoenix does his part reasonably well, although he lacks the charismatic quality that might have made this smiling scoundrel a truly compelling character. Similarly, Glenn, with his patented icy stare and grim visage, plays the gruff Sergeant Lee effectively, but doesn’t take him much beyond caricature. Paquin, too, is fine without being outstanding. Meanwhile, gentler comic jabs are provided by Harris, who plays wonderfully against type as the befuddled Col. Berman, a sort of innocent abroad whose hapless efforts to impress his commanding officer (a fine cameo by Dean Stockwell) by tracing his lineage to a Civil War general provide major laughs. Elizabeth McGovern also scores as the colonel’s sexy, ambitious wife.

“Buffalo Soldiers” was shot in Germany, and the locales give the picture a real sense of authenticity–a gritty appearance, accentuated by Oliver Stapleton’s steely-looking cinematography, that contrasts with the occasionally surrealistic, hallucinatory touches (a destructive tank ride under the influence of drugs, a haze-filled warehouse hastily transformed into a “kitchen” where vast quantities of drugs are being cooked).

The picture, it should be noted, was actually made a few years ago, and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks. In the intervening two years, it wasn’t considered appropriate to release a film depicting the military in a rather unflattering light so close to that event (and subsequent military action), even though the army of 1979 was a very different force and its problems are very well documented. In any event, it bodes well for the country that a story like this is finally being made available to the public. “Buffalo Soldiers” doesn’t equal the greatest cinematic military satires, but its mixture of grimness and farce carries a salutary jolt in an era of silly comedies with nothing to say.