Movies love scoundrels, the cleverer the better, and so it's easy to get on the wavelength of Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), the cheerfully devious military clerk who's the hero, and cad, of Buffalo Soldiers. He's like the unflappable, hustling, Gen-X progeny of the rebel surgeons in ''M*A*S*H,'' and the movie, cowritten and directed by Gregor Jordan (it's based on Robert O'Connor's 1993 novel), is an enjoyable, if highly formatted, riff on Robert Altman's regular-Army-clown classic.
Elwood, who is stationed at a U.S. base outside Stuttgart, West Germany, in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the sort of scam artist who takes care of himself by taking care of everyone else. Under the nose of the clueless Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), he'll do things like order 1,000 gallons of Mop & Glo, which he then hawks on the black market. Singularly industrious in his lack of scruples, he even cooks his own heroin, distributing it among the GIs who have little to do but distract themselves from the aimlessness of their post-Cold War torpor. Phoenix, so effete in his decadence in ''Gladiator,'' this time plays a different kind of rotter. Elwood, with his dark-eyebrowed yuppie-weasel stare, his Mercedes, and his secret nightmares of falling from the sky like a bomb, is the classic corporate sleaze with a touch of incipient sociopath, snaking his way through a bureaucratic Army that has grown soft and fat with lethargy.
It's now fair to ask, Which Army is that? ''Buffalo Soldiers'' was completed before Sept. 11 (its release has been delayed several times), and seen now, its nimble, close-to-the-bone send-up of an American military that has forgotten its purpose seems at once trenchant and eerily harmless -- irrelevant in its very cheek. I don't mean to imply that a movie made, or released, today shouldn't feel free to lampoon the military, only that ''Buffalo Soldiers'' has lost, rather than gained, by getting released into a world where the Army has seen its reason for being restored, big-time.
Elwood's own world starts to unravel when his base gets a new top commander, played by Scott Glenn, the perfect, wiry-dog actor to make gruff disciplinary fanaticism look hip. It's intriguing to watch the movie divide our sympathies between these two. We want to see Elwood succeed as he flirts up the boss' daughter (Anna Paquin) or sells a truckful of Stinger missiles to a German gangster. Yet when his schemes begin to crumble, it looks a lot like a brat's comeuppance. In the end, Elwood lands a bit too close to where he started, and so does ''Buffalo Soldiers,'' a good satire that had the untimely bad luck to be about a U.S. soldier who will do anything it takes to party, except fight for the right.