Plot twist stretch credibility in Travolta military thriller that is over-confident in its cleverness
A Hollywood-slick military mystery-thriller packed with over-scripted, less than cogent twists, "Basic" is so full of cheap red herrings that watching it feels like gorging on a Long John Silver's all-you-can-eat buffet.
John Travolta stars as Tom Hardy, a cocky ex-Army Ranger turned possibly crooked DEA agent who is tapped by his former commander (Tim Daly) to interrogate survivors of a live-fire Special Forces training mission which went so badly awry that none of the survivors will talk about it with on-post investigators.
Of the nine soldiers that went into the Panama jungle during a hurricane under the command of hated, mercilessly hard-driving, order-barking Sgt. Nathan West (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson), it seems only two came back alive. Everyone else, including the sergeant, was killed in either a friendly-fire accident or a heated showdown over command structure, West's psychological abuse and a possible drug-use cover-up.
But the two survivors -- uncooperative Dunbar (Brian Van Holt, "Windtalkers, " "Black Hawk Down") and paranoid, badly-wounded Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi, "The Gift," "Boiler Room") -- give such wildly different accounts that Hardy has to piece together the truth by eliminating the lies.
As the mission's events unfold in the soldiers' conflicting flashbacks, director John McTiernan (bouncing back only slightly from last year's ghastly "Rollerball" remake) creates such a vivid deep-jungle atmosphere that you almost feel battered by the storm that traps them in a tin-roofed bunker in a desperate state of confusion. The unit's trust and cohesion goes to hell after an explosion -- which may have been deliberate -- apparently kills West. But which Rangers suspected which of the crime, and how any of them wound up dead, differs wildly depending on who is telling the story.
In addition to uncovering what may be a broader conspiracy involving the base command, Hardy has another problem to contend with -- the Military Police's lead investigator who is more than a bit miffed at being pushed aside for a civilian. Played by sultry Connie Nielsen ("The Hunted," "Gladiator") in a butch haircut, she's an incongruous character with a tough skin but a vulnerable underbelly that's pathetically easy to expose and such bad investigative instincts that her on-again, off-again Southern twang is her most convincing character trait.
While the scenes in the jungle have only a few credibility problems (one female Ranger is obviously there just to up the film's sexy quotient), back at the base the plot soon comes under fire from a steady barrage of highly dubious contrivances.
Contentious sexual friction between Travolta and Nielsen comes off as obligatory and artificial. Every conversation -- be it a confrontation with Van Holt's most suspect soldier or flirtatious head-butting in the hallway between investigators -- is literally choreographed, to the point that watching the actors hit their marks with such deliberateness proves more than a little distracting.
Travolta's smarty-pants and twinkly-smile performance as Hardy just becomes annoying at points, as when he puckishly lays across the interrogation table like some designer-denim model while being ironically chitchaty with one of the soldiers. He's not a terribly convincing interrogator in the first place since in an early scene he thinks he has all the facts after five minutes with the elusive Dunbar.
But the more fundamental glitches in "Basic" come from some ridiculously implausible twists -- like the idea that two soldiers could switch identities and dog tags without anyone outside their unit realizing it (wouldn't Hardy have their files right in front of him?) -- and from transparently gimmicky scripting that withholds plot points from the audience (but not the characters) in order to spring them as surprises in the last reel.
As soon as Hardy arrives on base in the first act, he has a conversation with Daly in which McTiernan cuts away to a long shot just as a key plot point is about to be revealed in a whisper. We're not privy to the rest of that conversation until another hour into the movie.
The director and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (of this year's gimmicky horror flick "Darkness Falls") then execute a triple-surprise ending, one layer of which is obvious while the others consist of superfluous switcheroos that might have been entertaining in a film that didn't take itself so seriously, but here just comes off as completely arbitrary and leaves several loose ends flailing about.
The practical upshot of all this is that ultimately "Basic" isn't nearly as clever as Vanderbilt and McTiernan think it is.