Basic Straining

Oh, look another bad John Travolta movie. How original.

It's hard to believe they were originally going to release Basic before bombs started falling over Baghdad; if it isn't the worst movie of 2003 so far, it's only because I haven't seen Boat Trip. Now, in the shadow of smoke rising from the rubble in Iraq, it's even more unfathomable that Sony Pictures would unleash this stink bomb on the moviegoing public, which undoubtedly will turn up its nose at a movie in which soldiers are seen killing each other – repeatedly, in Rashomon-styled alternative-version flashbacks – over a drug-running scheme gone awry. And, really, nothing says "Go America!" like a movie in which Army commanding officers are depicted as homophobic, self-loathing despots who threaten men in their command with "training accidents" that will send them home in body bags.

What's truly offensive is that Basic peddles the laziest kind of filmmaking: Its writer, recent film-school grad James Vanderbilt (responsible for the Tooth Fairy horror film Darkness Falls), has concocted a screenplay that chokes to death in a tangle of inexplicable twists and cheap tricks; you could no more follow its plot if it took you by the hand and gave you a flashlight. And you'll never convince me professionals were involved in its making; director John McTiernan, still trying to wash the stink of Rollerball out of his clothes, tumbles further into the abyss of Lost Filmmakers. The man who made Die Hard doesn't even try hard anymore. Perhaps he hopes you'll be so dumfounded by a movie in which every word's a lie and every person's a fraud that you won't notice how amateurish this endeavor is.

With a plot involving murder on a military base, Basic may remind some of 1999's The General's Daughter, which also starred John Travolta as an investigator sent to get to the bottom of a cover-up. Small changes have been made: The latter's perverse and disturbing misogyny has been replaced by a wide streak of homophobia – Giovanni Ribisi appears in Basic as a gay Army Ranger who sounds like Jimmy Stewart as voiced by Kermit the Frog. And Connie Nielsen, a grating Dane with questionable taste in scripts (see, or don't, The Hunted), steps into the Madeleine Stowe role as Travolta's reluctant partner. Fortunately, there is no nude female corpse tied to tent pegs for the camera to linger on; the (presumably) dead man in Basic is Samuel L. Jackson, an Army Ranger who keeps all his clothes on – including, oddly, his Mace Windu cape.

Basic really brings to mind a Travolta film from 2000, Battlefield Earth, in that it's so astonishingly awful it becomes a sort of kinky pleasure; just when you think Travolta has fallen to the bottom of the barrel, he pulls out a shovel and dons his miner's helmet to see what lies beneath. Sony would have done wise to market Basic as a comedy, a parody of films like The General's Daughter; audiences lured in by its ominous trailer will find themselves laughing for all the wrong reasons. Of all the abominations for which Travolta has cashed a check post-Pulp Fiction, Basic might be the worst of all – which, granted, is a risky thing to say considering the likes of Battlefield Earth, Lucky Numbers, Domestic Disturbance and Swordfish, each less a movie than a punch line. Not since George W. Bush alienated the European members of the United Nations has someone been in danger of squandering so much goodwill.

And it's almost a shame, since Travolta's having a blast as Tom Hardy, a former Ranger turned disgraced DEA agent called in by his old pal Pete Wilmer (Tim Daly) to investigate the disappearances and deaths of several soldiers during a training drill in the jungles of Panama. Hardy's a boozer and skirt chaser, the kind of guy who thinks being cocky's the same thing as being charming; he'll admit to Nielsen's Lieutenant Osborne he's drunk in the middle of the day, but only as an excuse for hitting on her. But because Travolta's just a bit too old for this part, Hardy's also kind of sad, left to shout down young men (Ribisi, Brian Van Holt) who remind him of himself before he got lost at the bottom of an empty bottle.

Because McTiernan and Vanderbilt seemed to think they were making a real mystery, as opposed to the goofy little movie they wound up with, they take themselves so seriously that Travolta can get no traction. He's sabotaged by Nielsen, affecting the "Suth'n" drawl of a junior-high Civil War reenactment; by Harry Connick Jr., as the base doctor who sings like, well, Harry Connick Jr.; by Daly, who's so white-bread they could use him for peanut-butter sandwiches; and by a cast of young actors who all look the same during rain-forest downpours (save for Taye Diggs, who's clearly not in Chicago anymore, Toto). And he's done in by Vanderbilt, who withholds key plot points for no reason – you see, but don't hear, characters exchange information that will be revealed later – other than to con you into thinking there's something going on. Don't worry – there isn't.

 
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