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(2003) (John Travolta, Connie Nielsen) (R)

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Drama: Two military investigators must sort through differing eyewitness accounts to figure out what happened to a drill sergeant and members of his team who are missing and presumably dead.
It's the Panama Canal Zone and U.S Army Sergeant West (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) and some of his team - including Pike (TAYE DIGGS), Mueller (DASH MIHOK), Castro (CRISTIAN DE LA FUENTE) and Nunez (ROSELYN SANCHEZ), have not returned from a training mission. Although their bodies have not been found, two surviving members of the mission -- Ray Dunbar (BRIAN VAN HOLT) and Levi Kendall (GIOVANNI RIBISI) - state that they're dead but won't give up any more details.

Accordingly, Colonel Bill Styles (TIM DALY) calls in DEA Agent and former Ranger interrogator Tom Hardy (JOHN TRAVOLTA) to see what he can dig up. This doesn't sit well with current investigator Julia Osborne (CONNIE NIELSEN) since Hardy isn't in the Army anymore and is currently under investigation for accepting bribes.

Nevertheless, the two begin working together with Hardy obviously experienced at getting such witnesses to talk. As the two hear wildly varying stories from the witnesses about what happened and how they may or may not have a connection to a local doctor, Vilmer (HARRY CONNICK, JR.), the two investigators try to sort through the clues, accounts and apparent lies to get to the bottom of the matter.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
A favorite tactic of educators in examining human perception, memory and how both can vary wildly from person to person, is to stage some sort of surprise fake crime. Upon its completion, it's inevitable that witnesses will recount different versions of the same event. When the outcome of the real thing could have an adverse effect on such witnesses (or participants as the case might be), their stories obviously become tainted and even less reliable.

Such is the case in "Basic," the much ballyhooed reunion of stars John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson for the first time since working together in "Pulp Fiction." The film is essentially a military take on the old Rashomon plot where investigators - and thus viewers - hear different versions of the same tale and must figure out the truth.

It will obviously draw comparisons to "Courage Under Fire" that utilized the same format, as well as any number of military investigation flicks such as "A Few Good Men," "Rules of Engagement" and "The General's Daughter."

Unfortunately, it's a rather lackluster attempt on either front. The fault of that lies not only with the purposefully convoluted script by James Vanderbilt ("Darkness Falls"), but also the direction of John McTiernan. Once capable of delivering taut action and suspense in films such as "Die Hard" and "The Hunt for Red October," the director comes up flat here, much like he did with his remake of "Rollerball."

Mixing contemporary and flashback footage of the pivotal event - which temporally are only days apart and involve the apparent deaths of a hated sergeant and some of his team - the film is never as captivating or engaging as it needs to be.

That's despite the filmmakers throwing a hurricane, of all things, into the mix. All that does, however, is add flashes of light at night (for dramatic effect!) and a great amount of background noise that often drowns out the dialogue when not inducing shouting (for even greater dramatic effect!).

The plot is basically designed as a detective story where our interest is supposed to be piqued and progressively strengthened with each telling of the tale and subsequent clues. Yet, with each additional variation of the story, the reverse actually begins to occur.

The clues are supposed to lead us toward but not give away the big revelations and surprises that are obviously awaiting us at the end. By the time we get there, however, many viewers will have figured it out and/or won't really care.

That latter part is more significant and stems from not involving the viewer in either the characters or story (past or present). To make this sort of tale work, we need to root for the protagonists to solve the mystery (as well as worry about their well-being while doing so) and/or be affected by what occurred in the past.

"Courage Under Fire" managed to do both, but this film does neither. The filmmakers seem more intent on working their "clever" and ever-shifting plot toward its big surprise than in getting us to care about any of it.

In the present day part, we have the two investigators played by John Travolta ("Swordfish," "Domestic Disturbance") and Connie Nielsen ("The Hunted," "One Hour Photo"). Then there are the two witnesses and/or participants -- Brian Van Holt ("Windtalkers," "Black Hawk Down") in a decent performance and Giovanni Ribisi ("Heaven," "The Gift") doing a weird thing with his voice.

A few others, including Tim Daly ("The Object of My Affection," TV's "Wings") and Harry Connick, Jr. ("Hope Floats," "Copycat"), are present on the periphery but obviously have some connection to what has or is occurring. Travolta and Nielsen get the meatier parts as well as some decent exchanges of antagonistic flirting. Both overact to varying degrees, however, and fail to make us connect with their characters like they should.

The flashback scenes that feature the differing views of the big incident as well as training moments leading up to it fare even worse. McTiernan once managed to evoke some terrific and engaging suspense in "Predator," but his jungle military scenes feel flat and artificial here.

In them, Samuel L. Jackson ("XXX," "Changing Lanes") does his normal "bad ass" routine - as filtered through a mean and seemingly sadistic drill sergeant - while the likes of Taye Diggs ("Chicago," "Equilibrium"), Dash Mihok ("Dark Blue," "The Guru"), Cristian de la Fuente ("John Carpenter's Vampires," "Driven") and Roselyn Sanchez ("Boat Trip," "Rush Hour 2") can't do much with their poorly drawn characters.

Had we cared about what really happened to Jackson's character or the others that would have been one thing. Since we don't and/or aren't allowed to, that seriously undermines the film's efforts. To add insult to injury, those waiting to savor the chemistry between Travolta and Jackson are apt to be disappointed as they barely have any onscreen time together.

Far too concerned with trying to fill its plot with purposefully questionable characters, motivations and twists, McTiernan and company make the basic error that usually befalls less seasoned filmmakers. And that's forgetting to make a story and characters that viewers will care about. "Basic" doesn't and thus rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 20, 2003 / Posted March 28, 2003

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