U.S. Release Date: March 28, 2003
Distributor: Sony / Columbia
Director: John McTiernan
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Producer: Michael Tadross
Composer: Klaus Badelt, Ramin Djawadi (Additional music)
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 1 hour and 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violence and language)

No Pulp In Panama
by Scott Holleran

Don't blame John Travolta for the gimmicky Basic, directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard). He does his best in a poorly written role.

Travolta plays former Army Ranger Tom Hardy, a cynical drug agent passing the time in Panama with booze and women. Hardy's party lifestyle is interrupted when an old Army buddy Col. Styles (Wings star Timothy Daly) asks him to investigate a training mission gone wrong. Hardy is paired with a beautiful partner (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) and, predictably, their methods clash.

Solving the puzzle, which involves a supposedly sadistic commander (Samuel L. Jackson, Travolta's partner from Pulp Fiction), means interrogating the mission's only survivors, played by Brian Van Holt (Windtalkers) and Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan). It's during these dueling interview sessions—which feature competing flashback versions of what happened on the doomed exercise—that Basic loses focus.

The mystery is primarily powered by Travolta's charisma and by his chemistry with the pixyish Nielsen, who with a short hairstyle recalling Jean Seberg in Saint Joan appears more credible as a fashion model than a woman climbing the military ranks. The unoriginal script by James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls) copies everything from Travolta's own The General's Daughter to Courage Under Fire, and the bad guy is as obvious as a new recruit's buzz cut.

McTiernan's direction is wildly inconsistent. Ribisi's fey hospital patient is permitted to steal scenes while important characters, such as those on the training mission, are underdeveloped. The disparity is present in every other frame of Basic. Travolta's character overreacts to a physical altercation in one scene and plays the seasoned veteran to Nielsen's idealist in the next moment.

Some actors—such as Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2), whose Army Ranger is about as convincing as Charo—are allowed to portray this honorable branch of the military like a bunch of contestants on one of those so-called reality TV shows. That the brave Army Rangers executed a daring rescue in Iraq of a captured U.S. soldier from the enemy on the eve of Basic's opening doesn't help.

Just when the flashbacks begin to turn Basic into Dynasty in fatigues, the movie becomes unbearable. Vanderbilt's script poses the same losers, who couldn't get past basic training let alone into the Rangers, as heroes. How? By using one of the worst plot tricks: the bait and switch.

Without spoiling Basic's deception—which is not to be confused with a plot twist—it's safe to say that what really happens during the training mission could never be discerned by the person watching the movie. The narrative gimmick is so offensive to the intelligent moviegoer that it's a wonder the talented McTiernan and Travolta bought into such a basic betrayal of their audience.

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