Whether he's playing a baby-faced hood in "Grease" or a dope-addicted hit man in "Pulp Fiction," John Travolta is an actor who can send out lots of mixed signals from under his genial, boyish personality. Sometimes they're playful, sometimes menacing, confused or seductive. That ambivalence and volatility attract audiences and make him an ideal lead actor for "Basic," a military thriller in which we learn to distrust almost everything we see on screen.
The movie, one of those surprise-twist detective stories, doesn't really stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of the theater lobby. But Travolta does, as do co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen and Giovanni Ribisi. All of them would have been better off in a movie with fewer twists and more straight-ahead characterization and humor.
Directed by John McTiernan ("Die Hard"), an action-movie specialist who's usually at his best with movies that try to blast you out of your seat, "Basic" is an attempt at something more cerebral, and though it starts out well, with zest and confidence, it collapses by the last act. McTiernan's movie is about an investigation into the mysterious disappearance and possible murder of a group of U.S. Army Rangers in the Panama Canal Zone, led by the seemingly sadistic and now missing drill instructor Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson).
Only two survivors are left to help investigators Tom Hardy (Travolta), a cheerfully devious ex-Ranger and now semi-disgraced Drug Enforcement Agency guy, and Army Lt. Julia Osborne (Nielsen).
Sex antagonism springs up fast, as the romantically inclined but feuding sleuths grill two witnesses who can't be trusted. Those two survivor/witnesses, Levi Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and close-lipped Raymond Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), have very different versions of what happened to make West vanish with their fellow Ranger trainees - persecuted misfit Pike (Taye Diggs), tough Castro (Cristian de la Fuente), bully boy Mueller (Dash Mihok) and explosive Nunez (Roselyn Sanchez) - during what is described as a "routine training exercise" in the middle of a hurricane in the jungle.
You may wonder why the Army schedules routine training exercises in the jungle with a hurricane approaching. But that's actually one of the lesser mysteries of James Vanderbilt's patchwork script, which kisses logic goodbye early on. Still, Travolta swaggers through a role he has a lock on: an impudent, likably deceptive good-time guy with a bad rep and a warm heart. When he starts flirting with Nielsen's Osborne, the movie gets a perverse crackle to it. Hardy is supposedly under investigation for corruption in the DEA, and when we first meet him he's carousing in a red-light district. But the movie suggests that he's being framed and that the investigation is just pro forma. That makes Hardy a good opposites-attract match for by-the-book Osborne, who reacts so strongly against his bad-boy persona, we know he's got her going.
That relationship is the most successful one in "Basic," largely because it most successfully blends hostility and attraction, and the relationship has deep layers. The other characters are harder to enjoy because-we know from fairly early on-the movie is showing us lies. Since the recollections of Dunbar and Kendall are so contradictory, one or both have to be baloney artists-and it's likely some of the other characters are too, including shady doctor Pete Vilmer (Harry Connick Jr.), pushy base commander Bill Styles (Tim Daly), detectives Hardy and Osborne themselves-and perhaps even the characters we don't see except in the flashbacks from the survivors' testimony.
Vanderbilt is more interested in keeping us on the hook than applying rigor to his story. When you get to the last "Basic" twist, I doubt you'll feel the movie played very fair with you, or that the situation makes much sense. By contrast, the classic triple-reverse ending - as in "Witness for the Prosecution," "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" or, more recently, "The Sixth Sense" - delights us precisely because you can work back through the story and tie it all neatly together. We recognize, right after the author springs it, that we could have guessed it all along. The last twist of "Basic" is surprising largely because it's so senseless that you can't see it coming. It's less like receiving a blinding revelation than getting hit by a Mack truck filled with phony plot devices.
McTiernan knows how to keep a movie cracking along - as long as he's not stranded in a message-heavy melodrama like "Medicine Man" or a high-concept catastrophe like his recent "Rollerball" remake. As long as you're not picky about piecing things together logically at the end - and you should be, actually - "Basic" is pretty entertaining. Travolta and Nielsen are fun to watch, and Ribisi makes a good, twitchy semi-villain as a gay soldier trapped in a vise of machismo. Connick is watchable, too, as an affably corrupt doctor. And Jackson gives his usual ice-cool, high-impact performance, despite the fact that he's got an overly tricky role.
Ever since "Memento" and "The Sixth Sense" - and before them, "The Usual Suspects" -convoluted surprise endings for thrillers have been in vogue, and perhaps we should be happy that writers and directors these days sometimes try to play with our minds as well as our viscera. But you only to have to look back to the last movie pairing of Travolta and Jackson, in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," for an example of a movie with surprises that both shock and please you - and hold up afterwards when you shuffle back through them. "Basic" has a pretty basic problem: Despite Travolta and Jackson and everything that works well, you can't satisfactorily reconstruct it after McTiernan and Vanderbilt tear it apart.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Basic"
Directed by John McTiernan; written by James Vanderbilt; photographed by Steve Mason; edited by George Folsey Jr.; production designed by Dennis Bradford; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Andy Given, Louis Phillips. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, March 28. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (violence, language).
Tom Hardy - John Travolta
Lt. Julia Osborne - Connie Nielsen
Sgt. Nathan West - Samuel L. Jackson
Levi Kendall - Giovanni Ribisi
Raymond Dunbar - Brian Van Holt
Pike - Taye Diggs
Pete Vilmer - Harry Connick, Jr.
Castro - Cristian de la Fuente
Mueller - Dash Mihok Nunez - Roselyn Sanchez
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times