(John McTiernan, USA, 2003)


John Travolta has an evident liking for military subjects. Apart from the Scientological, intergalactic war of Battlefield Earth (2000), he has donned military outfits for The Thin Red Line (1998) and The General’s Daughter (1999). And corruption in the military institution seems especially appealing to him as an actor, coming up once again as a principal subject in Basic.

Here, Travolta plays Tom, an ex-army man pulled in to help with an especially mysterious case of field action. A Special Forces mission has gone horribly wrong, and the tyrannical Sgt. West (Samuel L. Jackson), along with most his team, are dead. Only two survive: hard-as nails Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and flamboyantly gay Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi). Their accounts of the disaster do not match.

For at least half of its running time, Basic comes across as a taut, spiky story of military procedures gone awry. Director John McTiernan, working more economically than he did in his Die Hard era, is adept at sketching out the interpersonal diagrams of loyalty, lust and hatred.

Even the rather predictable sexual tension between Tom and Julia (Connie Nielsen), his partner in interrogations, is fun to watch. Travolta is better in this film than he has been in years.

But, at a certain point, the tension snaps and we enter a whirlpool of reversals and revelations. As in The Life of David Gale (2003), the seriousness of the subject is frittered away as the viewer struggles to retroactively re-establish the logic of the plot.

MORE McTiernan: Last Action Hero, Predator

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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