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'Basic': confusing and badly timed

Friday, March 28, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Watching the movie "Basic" has a lot in common with negotiating the Fort Pitt Tunnel closing. You have to take a lot of detours, people keep pointing you in different directions and, when it's over, not only will you wonder how you got from there to here, you may forget where you started.


RATING: R for violence and action.

STARRING: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi.

DIRECTOR: John McTiernan.

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.com/basic


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"Basic" seems a strange name for a movie in which almost everyone lies, up to and including the filmmakers.

The fact that the on-screen treachery takes place among American soldiers makes this one of the most spectacularly ill-timed movie releases in recent memory. The setting, while recent, feels antiquated in light of current events. The action takes place in the Panama Canal Zone, just before the United States ceded control to the host nation.

The story begins with a training mission in which a group of Army Rangers and the tyrannical training officer Sgt. West (Samuel L. Jackson) are dropped into the jungle during a hurricane. When they don't arrive at the pickup point on time, a chopper goes to find them and sees one of the soldiers shooting at two of his comrades.

Sgt. West and a couple of the recruits are reported as dead. One of the two survivors is wounded. Each tells a different version of what happened.

The ranking officer, Col. Styles (Tim Daly), doesn't think his chief investigator, Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), can handle the case, especially when survivor Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) says he will talk only to another Ranger. Styles decides to call in Tom Hardy (John Travolta), an ex-Ranger turned DEA agent who is currently suspended from that job -- he is suspected of accepting bribes.

Hardy and Osborne alternately tangle with each other -- he begins the relationship by trying to put the moves on her -- and work on cracking the silence of Dunbar and the other survivor, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi).

Echoes of "Rashomon" sound throughout the film as each man tells his version, which we see in flashback. Who, if anyone, is telling the truth?

The movie keeps our interest as it starts peeling back layers, but it only becomes more confusing the deeper you get into it. By the time the final revelation comes, you may find yourself rewinding the movie in your brain, trying to figure out if the ending unravels whatever logic may exist in the beginning. I started to try working it out but I was afraid my brain might short out just like the movie does.

Travolta plays his character in macho-aggressive mode -- the film goes out of its way to show off his chiseled torso when we first see him. But he really isn't suited to this kind of bullheaded wise guy -- it leads to bad movies like "Broken Arrow" and "Battlefield Earth." I prefer the laid-back, supercool Travolta of "Pulp Fiction" and "Get Shorty."

Nielsen manages to keep her dignity -- she's a good actress who goes underappreciated (she gave one of the better performances in "Gladiator," for example).

Jackson's character is tough and profane, which he does well. But don't believe any hype about "Basic" reuniting Travolta and his "Pulp Fiction" partner -- they barely appear together on screen.

Most of the outdoors action takes place in the dark in a steady rain, which makes it even more difficult to tell exactly what is happening.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt has one previous credit, the horror movie "Darkness Falls," which never did get up. Director John McTiernan has also dropped a long way since making his name with "Die Hard."

At least "Basic" is preferable to McTiernan's previous effort, "Rollerball." Then again, so is sitting in traffic for 45 minutes on the Liberty Bridge.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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