- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

"Basic," a less evocative title than, say, "Jaws" or "Insomnia," is the latest wrinkle on the total-deception formula popularized by "The Usual Suspects." The suspicious case in this instance revolves around an Army Ranger base in Panama during hurricane season. The atmosphere is drenched, and so is the screenplay, whose purpose is to keep us guessing at all costs, including those connected with credulity or melodramatic plausibility.
Our tour guide, who may or may not be a straight shooter but permits John Travolta to ham it up divertingly while cutting a figure at once brawny and jocular, is a suspended agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration named Tom Hardy. Hardy, a former Ranger, is summoned from an apartment in Panama City by Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly), the commanding officer of the base, where a hard-boiled instructor named Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) seems to have gone astray or perhaps berserk, leading a squad on a training mission into the jungle in the teeth of the storm. All three men soldiered together: West was the instructor for both Hardy and Styles when they were aspiring Rangers.
A search party has recovered two survivors. Styles wants Hardy to help question them as part of a tandem with Military Police Capt. Julia Osborne, played by Connie Nielsen, again the token female authority figure in a nest of hard guys. A Dane by birth, Miss Nielsen had firmer chops in "The Hunted" but affects a cuter American accent in "Basic," where Julia sounds like the young Debbie Reynolds.
The surviving squad members definitely create a contrast of physical and temperamental specimens: studly Brian Holt as Dunbar and cuddly Giovanni Ribisi as Kendall, whose stories clash, exposing "Rashomonian" enmities and inconsistencies. Kendall also exposes a slightly hilarious hidden agenda in the screenplay because he's reputed to be the sarcastic, renegade homosexual son of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A most overcompensating cover story, it could be the model for a contest in which participants are invited to invent a character profile even more whimsical.
The whole point of the movie is to sow doubt about reported events and hidden motives and loyalties until the denouement. Although the framing narrative is filtered through Hardy, the interrogations provide entry points for flashbacks that can be ascribed to other characters and help confuse the trust issue. Osborne functions as the only completely sincere character in camera range; we're supposed to guess away in concert with her while she tries to figure out whom to trust.
The director, John McTiernan of "Die Hard" renown, has been undergoing a stylistic collapse in recent years. It continues in "Basic," although perhaps less drastically than it did a year ago in "Rollerball." The jungle flashbacks, which create the impression that West's trainees were at each other's throats not a particularly clever or attractive impression with the country at war also remind us that Mr. McTiernan had "Predator" to his credit way back. It would be a blessing if "Basic" could partake of such forthright depiction.
Unfortunately, we're supposed to be faked out by perhaps 95 percent of the episodes in "Basic," with the lost squad material high on the list. Because it's also difficult to discern precisely what is going on when violence purportedly erupts in dark and stormy nights, you're not sure how much of the misdirection is deliberate and how much just sloppy.
Staying indoors with Mr. Travolta while he pretends to outwit deceivers and flirt with Miss Nielsen is far and away the most entertaining aspect of "Basic." Compared to his roles in several recent vehicles "The General's Daughter," "Battlefield Earth," "Domestic Disturbance" and "Swordfish" Tom Hardy is an extremely civilized opportunity. Think of him as an overgrown and smugly swashbuckling Hardy Boy, and you won't be far off the mark.
Samuel L. Jackson has a relatively small role, so it would be a disappointment to attend "Basic" expecting a sustained reprise of the Travolta-Jackson partnership in "Pulp Fiction." The filmmakers do seem to encourage the misapprehension that audiences might be blundering into a kind of "Pulp Fiction" in uniform. Suffice it to say that there's a tricky element to the Jackson character. These filmmakers live for tricky elements.

*1/2 "Basic"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence; fleeting sexual allusions)
CREDITS: Directed by John McTiernan. Written by James Vanderbilt.
Music by Klaus Badelt
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

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