Confusion at its most 'Basic'

Times Staff Writer

If any of your talkative friends get to "Basic" before you do, don't worry about them giving the plot away. They won't be able to.

For though it's made with reasonable efficiency, this John Travolta-starring military thriller about murky doings in the jungles of Panama is so unashamedly confusing, so intent on piling twist upon twist upon twist, it makes your head hurt just trying to figure out what's happened.

The credit for this migraine goes to screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who has apparently wanted to confound audiences since he was a child. He's succeeded only too well, making "Basic" so hard to follow that we not only can't figure out who did what to whom, we finally can't be bothered to care.

Director John McTiernan, a combat veteran who has survived "Die Hard" and "The Hunt for Red October," does what he can with this convoluted scenario, making sure the actors don't dawdle and briskly staging the film's action mechanics. But with much of "Basic" meant to be unclear, even professionalism has a limited effectiveness.

It's Samuel L. Jackson we encounter first as the swaggering Ranger Sgt. Nathan West. He's a charismatic/sadistic/satanic leader of men whose job it is to mold puny recruits into one of the Army's elite fighting forces, not caring whether he bruises any tender sensibilities in the process.

The sarge is introduced ignoring a full-blown hurricane as he leads a helicopter full of Ranger recruits into those overgrown jungles on what passes for a routine training exercise. When he says, "Rangers do not wait on good weather," you know it's not a good idea to raise your hand and ask for an exception.

Only, get this, this exercise turns out to be anything but routine. The squad doesn't return as scheduled, and when base commander Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) uses his own chopper to investigate, he finds the remnants of a nasty family feud. Soldiers are wounded, soldiers are shooting at each other, soldiers are missing and soldiers are dead. Definitely not a job for a woman.

This is in essence what Styles tells Capt. Osborne (the versatile Connie Neilsen), the head of the base's military police and nominally in charge of the investigation. But Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), one of the two survivors, says he will only talk to a fellow Ranger, and the colonel thinks he knows just the man.

That would be Tom Hardy, your standard-issue singing-in-the-shower, party-animal, rogue DEA agent who just happens to be working in nearby Panama City. As played by a pumped-up Travolta in a tight black T-shirt and a close haircut that makes him look like Adam Sandler's older brother, Hardy is the best interrogator anyone's ever seen, someone who can, the colonel says, "get into your head faster than you can tie your shoes." Even if you're wearing loafers.

None of this sits too well with the miffed Osborne, who spends much of the movie muttering how this or that is completely unorthodox. But once Hardy gets going, displaying interrogation moves they wish they'd had at Nuremberg, she becomes a reluctant believer. Much of "Basic" is spent interrogating survivor Dunbar and the other man left standing, Kendall (an overacting Giovanni Ribisi), the wastrel son of an important general. We see several versions of what went down in the jungle, but even after we've seen them, we're not sure what happened, and that is the merest beginning of "Basic's" confusions. It's ironic that when a film finally lives up to its ad line ("Deception Is Their Most Dangerous Weapon"), you wish it hadn't.



MPAA rating: R, for violence and language

Times guidelines: Much violence but not excessively graphic

John Travolta...Hardy

Connie Nielsen...Osborne

Samuel L. Jackson...West

Tim Daly...Styles

Giovanni Ribisi...Kendall

Brian Van Holt...Dunbar

A Phoenix Pictures production, presented by Intermedia Films, released by Columbia Pictures. Director John McTiernan. Producers Mike Medavoy, Arnie Messer, James Vanderbilt, Michael Tadross. Executive producers Moritz Borman, Nigel Sinclair, Basil Iwanyk, Jonathan Krane. Screenplay James Vanderbilt. Cinematographer Steve Mason. Editor George Folsey Jr. Costumes Kate Harrington. Music Klaus Badelt. Production design Dennis Bradford. Art director Gary Kosko. Set decorator Vera Mills. Time: 1 hour, 35 min.

In general release.

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