Uncool thing No. 1 about Basic: This scam of a military thriller unites John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson for the first time since 1994’s Pulp Fiction and then basically denies them any scenes together. Their hit-man banter about fast food and the ethics of massaging a married babe’s pretty feet helped win them both Oscar nominations. Their teamwork was classic. Basic breaks up the team. What’s up with that?
Uncool thing No. 2: the plot. Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a former Army ranger turned DEA agent who is brought in by Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) to investigate the disappearance of Jackson’s Sgt. Nathan West, a brutal ranger instructor. The sarge is considered lost or maybe even murdered on a training exercise in the jungles of Panama while a hurricane rages. Only two men are rescued: Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), a gay epileptic, and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), a ranger who will talk only to other rangers. Bring on silver-tongued Hardy to get the truth out of them.
Uncool thing No. 3: This movie can’t handle the truth. Besides the boneheaded idea of putting Travolta in the present and Jackson in the past, the script, by first-timer James Vanderbilt, offers more conflicting flashbacks than Kurosawa’s Rashomon. At the core of the plot are intimations of drug-dealing, racism, homophobia and vast conspiracies. But director John McTiernan, whose career trajectory from Die Hard to the rotten remake of Rollerball is the essence of uncool, turns on the hurricane effects so often you can’t tell who’s who or who’s saying what. Given the dialogue, this actually may be a benefit.
Uncool thing No. 4: Basic is made up of remnants from other, better films: Courage Under Fire, A Few Good Men, A Soldier’s Story and The Usual Suspects. This is hell on the actors, who strain to pretend they’re onto something minty fresh.
Uncool thing No. 5: Fashion subs for character. Travolta, newly slim and buff, plays Hardy like a dude with ‘tude. We know this because he wears tight jeans and a tighter T-shirt. And pity poor Connie Nielsen (Gladiator) as Capt. Julia Osborne, the head of the MPs on the U.S. base. Decked out in Hollywood’s idea of Army regulation, the leggy Danish star looks like she’s doing a fashion spread on military chic.
Uncool thing No. 6: the exploitation of Jackson. The man is a force of nature. By playing uncool characters in Eve’s Bayou, A Time to Kill and Unbreakable, he was cooler than ever. Sadly, Jackson has let filmmakers trade on his Pulp persona in such junk as The Great White Hype, Deep Blue Sea, Formula 51 and XXX. He’s working the same “I’m a hardass” shtick in Basic.
Uncool thing No. 7: the missed opportunity with Travolta. His comeback with Pulp Fiction sparked strong work in Get Shorty, Primary Colors, Face/Off and A Civil Action. Travolta seemed comfortable in his own skin. But when his price went past the $20 million mark, his standards went down. There’s no excusing the likes of Battlefield Earth, The General’s Daughter, Lucky Numbers, Domestic Disturbance and Swordfish. Most of the effort Travolta makes in Basic seems to have gone into losing twenty-five pounds. He shows up and shows off, but the star presence that erupted in Saturday Night Fever and matured in Get Shorty is nowhere to be seen in Basic. He visits this movie, he doesn’t invest himself in it. And who can blame him?
Uncool thing No. 8: the big, tricky “Whew — I didn’t see that coming!” ending. Sure, it’s a surprise, but the film has to cheat us to get there, neglecting character, pacing and logic. You don’t do that to an audience. Any filmmaker should know that. It’s Basic.