Basic (2003)

You’d be hard-pressed to find a cinematic duo more influential and talked about over the past 10 years than John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction.” Fans still recount their conversations as Vincent and Jules verbatim. Which is why, if you teamed them up again, you think you’d actually team them—that is, give them some scenes together.

In the new John McTiernan thriller “Basic,” this doesn’t happen. It’s like a Simon and Garfunkel reunion featuring Simon at one end of Central Park and Garfunkel at the other. Everyone is thinking, “Shouldn’t they be playing together?”

Written byCathy Rabin
James Vanderbilt
Directed byJohn McTiernan
StarringJohn Travolta
Connie Nielsen
Samuel L. Jackson
Taye Diggs

Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a DEA agent in Panama, who has that breezy “Ain’t it cool?” swagger Travolta mastered years ago. When an old Army Ranger buddy (Timothy Daly) asks him to investigate a training exercise gone horribly awry, he’s both ordinary man (scratching himself) and jazzed by his own brilliance, forever staying a step ahead of everyone else.

The Ranger mission was led by Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson), a despised martinet. We see its beginning — West berating his troops mid chopper flight—and its end—Pvt. Dunbar (Brian van Holt) carrying a wounded Pvt. Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) through the rainy jungle while shooting and killing a fellow Ranger. Everyone else is missing and presumed dead.

Dunbar won’t talk, though, at least not to Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen—the love interest in “Gladiator”), whose Southern accent is like a bad radio transmitter—nonexistent one moment, piercingly loud the next—and whose method of interrogation consists of moving her pretty face close to Dunbar’s ear and whispering in a threatening tone.

Hardy arrives on the scene, bets he can get Dunbar talking in three minutes, and does. Both Dunbar and Kendall tell their stories in flashback, and while their facts don’t match, they match one another in their paranoid suspicion of fellow Rangers. Who had the best reason to kill Sgt. West? Who’s dealing drugs? And is “Section 8,” a special-ops organization that is only whispered about, involved? (Disclosure: “Section 8” is involved.)

The plot to “Basic” keeps shifting, and each time it shifts a whole new set of plot holes emerge. Yes, some shifts cover old plot holes (so that’s why Hardy suddenly gets quiet halfway through the investigation), but there are so many shifts, so many “Gotcha!” moments, so many characters who are “not what they appear to be” that, by the final twist, you’ve stopped caring. Plus it doesn’t excuse lines like—He: “I thought you wanted me gone.” She: “You grew on me.”

The shame is that Travolta is as good as ever, although he’s basically doing “The General’s Daughter” all over again: charismatic investigator, military but not military, dogged by pretty female companion. But he’s got personality, and, as Jules told us in “Pulp Fiction,” personality goes a long way. It just doesn’t go this far.

—Origianlly appeared in The Seattle Times on March 28, 2003

© 2003 Erik Lundegaard