A John Travolta military thriller that easily could have been titled “The General’s Son,” “Basic” is so crammed with plot there’s scarcely room for anything else. This pumped-up suspenser takes a “Rashomon” approach to portraying an investigation into the fate of several missing Special Forces trainees and their fearsome sergeant. Warning the viewer early on that nothing is what it seems to be, the picture feels far more dedicated to the proposition that a mystery can never have enough twists than it does to plausibility or dramatic integrity. But the teasing tale is told with such dispatch it will carry willing audiences along; genre staples of action, macho attitude and corruption through the ranks are delivered intact, and Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson brandish a swagger that should translate into brawny seasonal B.O.
Set mainly at an American Army base in Panama in 1999, John Vanderbilt’s script is a Chinese box that keeps its deepest secrets so tightly held that the viewer can’t possibly guess what’s inside the final box or how many boxes there are. Overriding feeling is that of elaborate carpentry having been done on the container with little regard to its contents.
Newly buffed and hardbodied after gradually ballooning throughout his post-“Pulp Fiction” rebirth, Travolta is in quicksilver form as Tom Hardy, a former Army Ranger with a “colorful background” (as the dialogue twice stresses) whose more recent career as a DEA agent has become clouded by allegations of bribe-taking from drug dealers. Due to his rep as an interrogator who could pry a confession out of a corpse, he’s called in by old bud Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) to question a recruit who won’t spill to the provost marshal, Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen, in a Jean Seberg haircut).
Goosed by Hardy, young Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) is the first to present the story of how the much-hated Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson) was murdered while leading his charges on a brutal training mission through the jungle in hurricane conditions, after which mutual recriminations and hatreds led to four of the six recruits having been shot as well, their bodies lost in the storm.
The only other apparent survivor of the incident, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), is laid up in hospital and relates a version of events that similarly leaves five people dead, but otherwise distinctly differs from Dunbar’s account. The sniveling Kendall seems like a fishy character, but because he’s the gay son of a top general, no scandal is to be attached to him, and Hardy is content to accept his story and call the case closed.
But Osborne, stewing over having had her authority usurped, insists upon pressing further, which leads into dirty deeds involving drug peddling on the base (a touchy area for Hardy), the existence of a rogue bunch of secret ops up to tricks in the jungle and other matters the revelation of which would spoil the filmmakers’ day.
To balance the enclosed, three-character interrogation scenes, considerable time is given to the ferocious discipline imposed by Sgt. West, who takes particular pleasure in humiliating the group’s sole black soldier, Pike (Taye Diggs), and then to the alternate versions of the unraveling training exercise. McTiernan is in his element here, drenching the action in relentless wind and rain. With lenser Steve Mason, he keeps the visuals predominantly dark, but jolts them into almost blinding brightness from time to time with lightning, explosions and gunfire, as if to construct a visual correlative to a murky mystery that can only be intermittently illuminated by flashes of truth.
To call the wind-up, along with much of what comes before it, far-fetched is understatement, as the final scene suddenly yanks the tone into jolly “Ocean’s 11” territory. Film’s summation could be criticized as cheaply cynical on one hand, or as a breezy acknowledgement of moral ambiguity on the other. Still, it’s hard to complain the filmmakers have taken their task too seriously or don’t hurry things along.
In his tight black muscle shirt and friskily insinuating manner (“Is he cute?,” he repeatedly inquires of Osborne about Dunbar), Travolta’s Hardy looks more pumped for a night of barhopping than for the extended grilling of prisoners. But the actor’s gleeful flamboyance provides considerable entertainment of its own and offers a pleasant contrast to the militaristic grunting and yelling that dominates the jungle scenes. Jackson fiercely locks in on West to make him the sergeant of any grunt’s nightmares, while Nielsen should have dispensed with her attempt at what appears to be a Southern accent, so distractingly does it come and go.
Tech contributions are robust. Locations around Cecil Field, a decommissioned air base in Jacksonville, Fla., convincingly double for Panama.