At Best, a 'Basic' Thriller

Thursday, March 27, 2003

"Basic" is a "Usual Suspects" wolf in sheep's clothing of a military thriller. What seems to be a routine investigation into the disappearance of an elite Special Forces team in the Panama jungle turns into a twisteroo mystery with a "Rashomon" edge.

At the center is Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a DEA agent and former Ranger who is summoned to the Fort Clayton Army base to investigate the matter.

Why does base commander Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) call Hardy? Because Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), one of the only two survivors of the Special Forces team, has refused to speak to anyone but a Ranger.
The peeling of a fascinating onion begins -- or a potentially fascinating one. Hardy must listen to conflicting accounts. Dunbar is a tight-lipped fellow at the best of times, and even though he eventually says the missing soldiers (including Samuel L. Jackson as the hard-bitten, unloved Sgt. Nathan West) were murdered, there's a sense that his testimony is suspect.

The same goes for Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), the other survivor, whose version of what happened differs radically from Dunbar's.

Directed by John McTiernan and written by James Vanderbilt, "Basic" unfolds like all too many military investigation movies (including "The General's Daughter," which also starred Travolta). And even though its agenda is deeper than that, the surface remains average.


Basic **


Ironic that a film named "Basic" is too complicated for its own good. John Travolta stars as a DEA agent assigned to solve the murder of an Army sergeant ("Pulp Fiction" co-star Samuel L. Jackson). "Rashomon"-type flashbacks add to the intrigue, even if the plot favors compounding twists at the expense of logic.

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The filmmakers have invested their creative energy into the "Rashomon"-style scheme but not its dramatic, in-the-moment punch. The events, even though they're on a skittery surface, are relatively forgettable.

The weakest element of all is the by-the-numbers sexual tension between Hardy and Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), who's conducting the investigation. Her rookie iciness, pitted against Travolta's flirty deviltry, doesn't have the adversarial ring the movie aims for. Nielsen seems, quite simply, to be out of her element. Travolta gets to run rings around her without particularly daunting opposition.

However, there are some enjoyable moments, mostly thanks to Travolta's swaggery ease with the role. When Osborne tells Hardy she's not comfortable with him because he's under investigation for accepting bribes from drug traffickers, Hardy's response is entertaining, in that Hollywood-ready sense.

"Three things," he tells her. "First, you don't have a choice. Second, I've never taken a bribe in my life. And third, I'm still a little drunk from earlier today. So if I skip over the witty banter and move straight into coming on to you, I hope you don't take offense."

Maybe the combination of Travolta's presence and the ultimate punch line are enough for many audiences. But that still renders "Basic" into entertainment more suitable for the living room than the movie theater. And it's best not to think of this as the first reunion between Travolta and Jackson since Quentin Tarantino's assured "Pulp Fiction." For one thing, they barely share any screen time. And for another, that would invite unfair and one-sided comparison between the two films.