It’s appropriate that the action of “Basic” is set on November 2, 1999–the Day of the Dead, as we’re reminded–because the movie is pretty much DOA. James Vanderbilt’s script tries for mysterious convolutions like the ones Christopher McQuarrie contrived for “The Usual Suspects” but this time within the context of a military investigation; it employs extended interrogations to play deceptive mind-games with the audience through wildly divergent recollections of the same events. Unfortunately the result is less like Bryan Singer’s classic little thriller or “Rashomon” than one of Agatha Christie’s creakier vehicles dressed in combat gear and with a much fouler mouth.
One might have thought that John Travolta would have learned his lesson about playing an army gumshoe from his 1999 misfire “The General’s Daughter,” but no such luck. Perhaps he was misled by the fact that the character here–Tom Hardy, an ex-Ranger turned DEA agent–is a far more colorful fellow than the one he played in the earlier picture, cynical, smug and and cooly arrogant. But in reality these traits appeal to his worst instincts as an actor, encouraging him to do what nearly amounts to a self-caricature, an echt-Travolta as it were. In his hands, Hardy isn’t even as realistic as Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot–he’s all empty swagger.
Of course, in a plot as labyrinthine as this one, realism isn’t an especially prized quality. The narrative unfolds in overlapping flashbacks and question-and-answer sessions. Hardy, a US drug operative in Panama, is asked by an old buddy, Colonel Bill Styles (Tim Daly), the commander of Fort Clayton, to unravel the truth behind the disappearance of a squad of Special Forces trainees in the hurricane-swept jungle. Hardy’s intervention in the interrogation of the two suspicious survivors, Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), annoys Lt. Osborne (Connie Nielsen), the hard-bitten but lovely head of base security; and the trainees’ duplicity only magnifies the mystery behind the apparent deaths of the other squad members–Pike (Taye Diggs), Castro (Cristian De La Fuente), Mueller (Dash Mihok), Nunez (Roselyn Sanchez) and Sergeant West (Samuel L. Jackson), the brutally demanding instructor who had once numbered Tom among his victims. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about the mirrors within mirrors revealed as the investigation proceeds; suffice it to say that there are plenty of twists, turns, surprises and misdirections–so many, in fact, that before the truth is finally revealed you’ll probably have given up trying to figure it out or caring how it’s resolved.
That’s partially because, like Hardy, the rest of the characters are cardboard figures that serve as little more than pieces in an elaborate board game and that even the more talented among the cast can’t bring to life. Most of the performances listed above, along with that of Harry Connick, Jr. as a doctor at the base hospital, are just nondescript, but a few of them stand out (like Travolta’s) for their falseness. Nielsen is too prim and proper by half, and the smarmy Daly too obvious a suspect from word one. Jackson, meanwhile, comes on so strong that he’s just a send-up of the military martinet. The worst offender, though, is Ribisi. After his superbly refined and restrained turn in Tom Tykwer’s “Heaven” last year, he goes into paroxysms of overacting here. The goal was obviously the sort of virtuoso tour-de-force that Edward Norton delivered as an even cagier fellow in “Primal Fear,” but Ribisi falls far short of that standard; it’s sad to watch him writhe about so ostentatiously to so little effect.
Clearly director John McTiernan should have stepped in and imposed some restraint on his actors. But while he shows considerable skill at staging the action scenes and working with cinematographer Steve Mason to create some striking compositions and smooth tracking shots, his handling of the human element is far less secure. And that’s where similarly complicated exercises in deception like “Suspects” and “Fear” fared far better.
What’s left in “Basic” is a thoroughly artificial contraption in which the seams show and the revelations lack the sense of inevitability that would have made them satisfying. It tries too hard, and winds up a frenetic bore.