Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 27, 2003
Basic\r\nStarring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Connie Nielsen. Directed by John McTiernan. Written by James Vanderbilt. Rated R.\r\n
Ranger Than Fiction

Who killed the sergeant\r\nin Basic? No, seriously,\r\nwho did it?\r\n


Donít be fooled by the title Basic, which has to be the most generic movie title since last yearís Below. It starts out like a standard-issue potboiler of a military whodunit, as director John McTiernan (Die Hard, but then again, Rollerball) keeps things moving at a decent clip, establishes the filmís jungle atmosphere pretty well, and draws us into the central murder mystery. Then about halfway through, the movie betrays its title and its story and goes completely nutso.

We begin with a platoon of Army Rangers led by Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) conducting a live-fire training exercise on a stormy night in the Panamanian rain forest. Thirty-six hours later, the operation has gone terribly wrong. Only two of the six trainees make it out of the jungle alive, one named Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) whoís wounded and unconscious, and one named Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) who refuses to talk except to a fellow Ranger. With the feds threatening to take over the case, the base commander (Tim Daly) turns to DEA Agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a former Ranger who trained with West and brings a reputation as a brilliant interrogator.

What happened? The sergeant was a hardass who singled out one of his cadets, Pike (Taye Diggs), for particular abuse. Did Pike hate West enough to murder him, and then start killing off the others to silence them? Or was West eliminated because he found out that some of his subordinates were using the Army as a cover to set up their very own South American drug cartel? The lies come thick and fast, as Hardy and the initial investigator, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), question the two survivors and find their stories to be full of holes and often contradictory.

McTiernanís biggest accomplishment here is finding a way to wake up John Travolta. Hereís an actor whoís had a strange career. Since his resurrection in Pulp Fiction and his beautifully understated cool in Get Shorty, he has once again had trouble finding a groove: boring as a crusading attorney in A Civil Action, too snarky for the egomaniacal villains in Swordfish and Battlefield Earth, off the mark (along with everyone else) in Lucky Numbers, visibly on auto-pilot in The Generalís Daughter and Domestic Disturbance. Here, though, he flashes his probing intelligence, and his talent for sarcasm is put to excellent use in his interrogation scenes, particularly one in which Hardy confronts Dunbar with his own lies and baits him into taking a run at him. His co-stars donít give him any competition ó Jacksonís content to leave his volume knob stuck on maximum level, and, as in The Hunted, Nielsen is once again saddled with the role of the lead investigator getting buffaloed by an outsider. Travoltaís energy is heartening to see, and it propels the film forward.

Until it crashes, that is. The movie does all right while it stays within the bounds of dramatic plausibility, but then, without warning, it throws story logic and characterization out the window and over a cliff. Osborne cracks the baseís corrupt, stonewalling doctor (Harry Connick Jr.) by bashing him in the face with a phone book. Not to be outdone, Hardy reacts to Dunbarís latest lie by yanking him off a plane and holding his head up to a spinning propeller. The two investigators get into a catfight that looks like itís going to turn into a make-out session before turning back into a catfight. Late in the film, a barrage of new information leads to at least five different theories of the case, and the characters formulate them in such quick succession that we donít have time to absorb one scenario before the next one is sprung on us. The killer is that guy! No, itís the other guy! Whoops, the first guy is actually the other guy in disguise!

If the plot developments arenít enough, you can always listen to the strange accents bouncing around here. Nielsen, a Danish actress, tries to play a Southerner, and her mixture of twanged vowels and umlauts sounds downright bizarre. Even that, though, pales next to Giovanni Ribisiís delivery. With his unnaturally deep voice and fussy enunciation, he sounds like heís doing an impression of Dr. Evil. His array of self-indulgent mannerisms (at one point, he responds to a question by reiterating the same word into a pillow for no apparent reason) will leave you asking what the hell was in the actorís head.

So, in terms of basic storytelling, Basic makes no sense. A movie is free to make no sense if itís entertaining. In those terms, this movie is like being invited to a highly decorous tea party and then suddenly watching as all the other guests take their clothes off and go streaking. Itíll surprise you. It might make you laugh. Or it might make you feel like someoneís been jerking your chain.

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