It's `Basic': Buckle up and pay attention

March 28, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Basic is anything but. Instead, it's a Rubik's Cube of a movie, where nothing is as it seems, no conclusion is pat, and plot lines can unravel at the snap of a finger.

At times the pace is dizzying, and frequently the effort required to follow what's happening can make your head hurt. Then again, if you're that worried about ensuring that point A flows smoothly into point B, don't be. Things eventually become clear. Instead, enjoy the whip-cracking plot turns and the marvelously cocksure performance of John Travolta, whose blue eyes and buff physique (nice to see him back in lean, mean, fighting-machine mode) are in service to a role that allows him to overplay in a manner that ensures the character is as much fun to watch as he undoubtedly was to play.

Or, to put things another way, buy your ticket, sit yourself down, and let ol' John take you for a ride. You'll have a blast.

Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a hard-living ex-Army Ranger who's now a DEA agent fallen on tough times: He's under investigation on charges of accepting bribes, and pretty much everyone assumes he's guilty. But just when things look really bad, he gets an unexpected shot at redemption. An old buddy who's now a colonel overseeing operations at a Panama Army base has had a bunch of his men (and one woman) disappear in the jungle under suspicious circumstances - like, they apparently spent much of their time shooting at one another, according to two survivors who have turned up.

It's Hardy's job to find out what happened, especially with regard to the fate of their abusive combat instructor, Sgt. Nathan West (a gleeful Samuel L. Jackson), who's among the missing and presumed dead.

Hardy's investigative methods prove a tad unorthodox, and they especially rankle his reluctant partner, Capt. Julia Osborne (a not-entirely comfortable Connie Nielsen), who as head of the base's military police is not too pleased that this rogue ex-Ranger is brought in to do what should be her job. Eventually, grudgingly, she allows herself to get in the game, although the combination of Hardy's penchant for grandstanding and her own wounded pride keep her from ever becoming entirely comfortable with what's going on. (There's also some sexual attraction, but to its credit, the movie doesn't overplay that hand.)

It's quite a tale that unfolds - or quite a series of tales. Each survivor tells a different story, and the strands Hardy and Osborne are able to discern suggest even further possibilities (first-time screenwriter James Vanderbilt obviously has seen Rashomon a few times).

Director John McTiernan keeps things moving briskly, and understands that the labyrinthine nature of the plot could be the movie's biggest drawback; when things get too convoluted, he tends to just movie things along, trusting that audiences will keep up. For the most art, they will. Afterward, a few implausibilities may nag at people, but not overwhelmingly so.

Basi Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen

Directed by John McTiernan

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated R (Language, violence)

Time 95 minutes

SUN SCORE * * *

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