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Basic

John McTiernan's military mystery Basic takes place in a Panama where the rain pounds with almost unnatural fury on vegetation so thick that even the marmosets must occasionally get lost. Confusion comes with the territory, which may explain why sense and reason disappear from the film so easily. Introduced hoisting a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the shower (perhaps to establish a love of alcohol and cleanliness), John Travolta stars as a serviceman-turned-DEA-agent who, while battling charges of corruption, gets called in by old pal Timothy Daly for an off-the-record investigation into a military training exercise gone wrong. Led by tougher-than-tough sergeant Samuel L. Jackson, a group of would-be Army Rangers entered the thick of the jungle. Only two emerged, and Jackson wasn't among them. Travolta, it's soon revealed, has a history with Jackson. His sidekick for the investigation, Connie Nielsen, has a history with hospital chief Harry Connick Jr. In this Peyton Place with semi-automatic weapons, it would seem everyone has a history of some sort with someone else, and the film at first appears determined to reveal them all, as Travolta bounces first from tight-lipped survivor Brian Van Holt to the heavily wounded (and heavily drugged) Giovanni Ribisi, getting testimony portrayed in conflicting flashbacks that suggest Rashomon as imagined by Stephen J. Cannell. If the loud combat scenes were meant to deaden audiences into accepting the film's ludicrous turns, the gambit doesn't pay off. For twists to work, viewers have to feel like they're being led along, not jerked around, and James Vanderbilt's script eventually devolves into little more than a series of jerks, stopping short only of introducing evil twins and alien interlopers. It's a dumb movie masquerading as a smart one, the kind David Mamet might write if he stopped caring, or just stopped thinking. The rusty logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but at least the cast keeps the film dumbly agreeable. Nielsen is ready for more substantial roles, and Travolta has an easy command of smarmy heroism–and ought to, having played this part several times over. Calling Basic the best film that either Travolta or McTiernan has done in a while may be damning it with faint praise, but that's the only praise likely to stick.

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