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movie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Connie Nielsen, Harry Connick Jr., Tim Daly

Review by Harvey Karten
2½ stars out of 4

Move over "Dreamcatcher." You tried to be the most convoluted picture of 2003, but already you've bitten the dust. Hello, "Basic," whose plot is anything but. A picture almost as enigmatic as Alain Resnais's terminally puzzling 1961 feature "Last Year at Marienbad," begins sharply, showing its good intentions, but as John McTiernan moves to develop the plot, he's done in by James Vanderbilt's script one which looks as though it were written by a committee of eight. "Basic," which comes across ultimately like something out of Agatha Christie "One of you in this room is guilty and I'm going to tell you who" is so baffling throughout that by the conclusion we wonder how a story with a superficial premise should have pushed our confusion buttons yet offered so little in the way of a satisfactory resolution.

As though deliberately trying to muffle scripter Vanderbilt's dialogue, McTiernan keeps the hurricane-strength rain pouring down and the music intrusive on the part of the story that takes place in Panama, a country which plays host to a group of rough- tough trainees for the American Ranger program. Under the hostile and gritty command of Sergeant West (Samuel L. Jackson) whom everyone hates and has a right to do so given the way he works the men carrying the 80-pound packs, a group of uniformed men who are not clearly individualized throughout the Panama scenes grimly accept the orders of the officer. When the men do not appear at a point of pickup, Commander Styles (Tim Daly) prowls about in his chopper to locate them when suddenly he witnesses Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) carrying a wounded man, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), followed by an exchange of gunfire among the trainees resulting in more than one death.

"Basic" proceeds in Rashomon fashion as first the attractive but seemingly constipated Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) tries to get information from Dunbar and is forced at the suspect's request to call in a former ranger, Hardy (John Travolta), now a DEA agent being investigated for bribe-taking, who gets Dunbar to start talking but whose story does not tally with that of another survivor, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi).

There is little of the "Caine Mutiny Court Martial" motif in the story. Rather "Basic" is a mystery which has both Hardy and Osborne throwing metaphoric daggers at each other while, while Hardy alternates between putting the make on the pretty officer and finding out which of the surviving recruits is telling the truth.

The film is well acted by people who are bogged down in a tale that seems to be all about developing and developing and developing with no apparent thrust toward reaching a conclusion. Since this is not a satiric take at the U.S. armed forces (go to "Buffalo Soldiers" for that), not a suspenseful courtroom escape like "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," we suspect by midpoint that director John McTiernan and writer James Vanderbilt are satisfied with nothing more than pulling our audience chains while providing a startling conclusion that leaves too many question unanswered.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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