Basic (15)

Basic is a movie that tries a little too hard to be smart.

An amalgam of A Few Good Men fused with The General’s Daughter (and once again starring John Travolta as a maverick former military investigator) it pits the grey matter of two mismatched lawyers against the brawn of American marines who opt for a conspiracy of silence when something fatal occurs on a jungle training exercise.

As far as Travolta’s concerned, only the truth will do. As far as reluctant colleague Connie Nielsen sees it, Travolta, as DEA agent Tom Hardy, is merely doing an old pal a favour by sewing up the tragedy before its nasty stench leaves the base and causes an almighty stink.

Of course, Nielsen (see to fine effect in Gladiator) has her own axe to grind. Her commanding officer (and Travolta’s crony) has refused her authority over the incident and given Travolta seniority. Throw in some bruised egos to go with a handful of bullet-riddled corpses, some duplicitous survivors, and a much-hated and missing training sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson providing an extended cameo with much SHOUTING and YELLING of lines as a sadist and bully) and Basic slowly becomes a film with at least three separate episodes playing side by side.

In the hands of action movie veteran John (Die Hard) McTiernan Basic becomes less of an army drama and more of a military whodunnit – a Lord of the Flies derivative as the soldiers appear to turn on each other after first murdering their monstrous NCO.

With high calibre support from the likes of Taye Diggs, Giovanni Ribisi and Harry Connick Jnr, it sucks in unwary viewers and offers them more than just another standardised Hollywood flick. The main problem is that the picture relies on telling multiple versions of the same story: the hero survivor’s, the injured survivor with a grudge and Travolta’s, as he painstakingly pieces together the truth from lies and double-talk.

Eventually however there are one too many double crosses and altered accounts, while the final twist, when it happens, is both unbelievable and uninteresting.

To its credit Basic does focus on some areas generally missing from the action blockbuster: race, homosexuality, corruption and betrayal in the US military. It is however let down by the flat and one-dimensional nature of its lead characters and a script (by James Vanderbilt) that just has to have the two stars travel the hackneyed path of dislike to admiration to affection.

Star rating: ***

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