Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

John Travolta is a good actor. I can say that without any hesitation or even the slightest snicker in my voice. He's proved his versatility and skill in a variety of roles from Saturday Night Fever to Pulp Fiction. He is, however, not a great actor. When I say great, I am speaking of actors like Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, and, to some extent, Samuel L. Jackson. Great actors rise above the mess of a script or the hack of a director to create memorable, well-built characters. John Travolta, unfortunately, falls into a different category. Travolta is one of those actors who needs all the conditions to be right for him to be at the top of his game. Basic, his latest, does him no favors.

Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a retired Army Ranger, now a disgraced DEA agent who is called in to investigate a drill sergeant and his team of recruits, all missing in the Panamanian jungle after a training exercise gone awry. When it becomes apparent that the drill sergeant, Nathan West, may have been murdered by his own men, the base's commanding officer pulls out all the stops to keep the scandal under wraps. Hardy seems the perfect outsider to have on the scene. Samuel Jackson, who plays West, is seen mostly in flashback, and leaves most of the film to Travolta and his search for the truth. The hows and whys, however, become so muddled from twist after twist, that it becomes almost impossible to discern what really happened, if anything. Is it drugs? Is it racism? Is it corruption? You could answer yes or no to any of these questions and come out of the theater with no greater insight into the plot than when you came in.

The writing is a definite issue in this film, but is not the only one. The acting, and the story, for that matter, can be broken into two parts: the flashback portions and the present day portions. The flashbacks are fairly well acted and are engaging and exciting. None of these scenes involve John Travolta, and nearly all include Samuel Jackson. The present day scenes are poorly acted, badly written, and jump around so much that a professional blackjack player couldn't follow the plays. Travolta's acting flip flops between hackneyed and folksy to deadly serious, though none of it is believable. Connie Nielsen plays Osbourne, another investigator, with a southern accent so thick yet randomly absent that she could have been a female Kevin Costner. Over the whole film is a sense of smugness. It's almost as though the actors are proud of themselves for being involved in such a "smart" movie.

Basic could have been good. The idea is interesting and could have been played out with success. Unfortunately, director John McTiernan works too hard keeping you guessing, and spends no where near enough time on character development or dialogue. The scenes of interrogation, which make up a large percentage of the film, all seem lifted from one of the various Law and Order incarnations, and are better portrayed on NBC. As the facts are slowly revealed, I began to realize that the writers were dropping details as they went. Much of what is proclaimed true at the middle of the movie makes the beginning seem pointless and confusing, and the end of the movie completely nullifies much of what you saw up to that point. That can work, but not without finesse, and what feels like an interminably long movie, ends up with virtually nothing to say.

Movies with a surprise ending are all the rage in Hollywood. People are addicted to them. Such is the curse of great movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. These films are the equivalent of a magic trick; slight of hand where they show you one palm is empty only to produce the quarter from behind your ear. They make it look easy, but that's the real trick. Movies like Basic can try and try, twist and turn, but no matter how much they work the angle, without a little magic, this trick is going nowhere. Grade: C-

Basic is rated R for language and violence.

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