Basic (2003)

Despite being rotten, The General's Daughter breezed through to a big gross, so here's another John Travolta vehicle in which he's a military man investigating an in-house murder that took place on a training exercise. It opens with a voice-over from military cop / lawyer Captain Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) about how Panama used to profit from selling the corpses of canal diggers as medical specimens, then heads into a rainy jungle for the first of several dramatisations of a US Army Ranger exercise supervised by stereotypical bullying drill Sergeant West (Samuel L. Jackson) which ends with a helicopter spotting a firefight between a couple of survivors and the airlifting out of two soldiers, a tough guy (Brian Van Holt) and a weirdly effete gay foul-up (Giovanni Ribisi). The survivors will only talk to a fellow Ranger, so an officer (Tim Daly) calls in Tom Hardy (Travolta), an ex-soldier working for the DEA and suspended on suspicion of taking bribes. Hardy and Osborne clash over jurisdiction, with the crotch-scratching import impressing the ambitious junior as a slob (Travolta manages to have both a six-pack and a paunch) but then showing himself a canny, probing interrogator who gets two different stories of what happened on the exercise and how West died from the witnesses / suspects, then puzzles out that both were lying in order to lead them to a misleading common story that still isn't the truth.

The Usual Suspects-influenced plot (from screenwriter James Vanderbilt) straggles on through several revisions, with collateral damage as every friendly face on the base (Daly, Harry Connick Jr) turns out to be mixed up in drug-smuggling and dirty deeds and Ribisi spectacularly expires from a poison that makes him projectile vomit blood before the sole survivor (who, among other confusions, has switched dog-tags and misidentified his role in the story) gets his face shoved near an airplane propeller until he tells yet another version. And after that Julia figures out it's all been a scam on her and that Hardy was in on a drugs plot, though she tracks him down for yet another nonsensical twist whereby almost everyone still alive (and some thought dead) show up and are revealed as part of a military covert investigation team. John McTiernan, still floundering through a career slump, piles on the rainstorms and the night and the cast mostly add sly (or blatant) camp touches that vaguely redeem the toshiness of the whole enterprise. More fun than The General's Daughter, but just as bad, really.

First published in this form here.


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