If there's a grain of accuracy in this so-called honest portrait of life and
commerce on an American military base, we're in grave trouble. One suspects,
however, that there's more deception than truthfulness here, and that the
sordidness and depravity is more in the minds of the people who came up
with this failed attempt at drama.
In a business decision, distributor Miramax has held back the release of this
film for nearly two years, avoiding the backsplash from so unflattering a
view of how our army functions on the base level, in the time shadow of
September 11th and the two invasions that followed.
No one's saying there aren't opportunists in uniform, but this picture
suggests its overriding pervasiveness or immorality that strains credulity
while fostering contempt. Instead of the courage of an outside view by an
Australian observer, it seems more an exploitative play by an Aussie director
(Gregor Jordan) using the shock value of deceit thriving over ineptitude to
make a name for himself.
Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is the man on this West German base who makes
things happen in the military world of 1989. He's a soft-spoken supply
soldier who knows how to game the system for his own profit. To enhance his
potentials, he has ingratiated himself with his superior officer, Colonel
Wallace Berman (Ed Harris) whose mental fitness is amply expressed in the way
his mind flits from position to position like a mental butterfly, haplessly
agreeing to order the 1000 pounds of liquid cleaner that Elwood says is
When we see how willing the German customers are for the product we get the
idea of how lucrative the trade is for the craftly operator. But that's the
more or less honest trade based on thievery. The real money is in heroin,
and our Elwood is the one man in the platoon who knows how to refine the
stuff in his cooking pots for the MP dealers he's selling to.
He and his associates are pretty much getting away with murder until Master
Sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) shows up with his adorable daughter Robyn
(Anna Paquin). Needless to say, Elwood gets involved with the high diving
lady and daddy is fuming more than the heroin pots. In some uncanny way, he
has divined what Elwood is up to even before he's offered the bribe of a late
model TV to confirm it. Rising to the power he wields as the highest ranking
non-com, he takes the steps necessary to bring the man, his spiffy wheels,
and the entire clandestine operation down.
One of the troubles with the film is the muddled conflict between the
cool, conniving (but really quite sensitive) Elwood and the stiff backed
"Master" (the cavalry to the rescue) while keeping the other stereotypes
(Harris' colonel-without-a-clue and the military drug dealing gangsters)
playing along. The editors must have had a gay time trying to sort out the
good and bad sides of the ill-drawn character profiles that tries so hard to
inject some dimension to cardboard figures.
It wasn't just September 11th and war fever that made this mess one to keep
under the cutting table for so long. It's the sour and dour
one-dimensionality of it. It might have played better as an Albert Brooks
~~ Jules Brenner