Is that dramatic "woosh" the sound of the intense hurricane that complicates a doomed Army training mission in Basic? No, it's a byproduct of the ever-accelerating, freefalling careers of Johns Travolta and McTiernan.
Travolta's been in dire creative straits since The General's Daughter, and that's being generous. Ponder these big-budget turkeys: Battlefield Earth, Domestic Disturbance, Swordfish. And McTiernan is in no better position, returning with his first film since his Rollerball crap derby -- another waste of good celluloid in a long line that includes The Last Action Hero and The 13th Warrior.
Sadly, both of these guys, in what seems to be the very distant past, have dramatically changed the direction of Hollywood film. McTiernan's Die Hard set a new standard for action films while Travolta's massive pop culture successes span three decades and include such moment definers as Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy and Pulp Fiction.
Nevertheless Basic, their first collaboration, is a confusing, shoddy, and lame conspiracy thriller that tiptoes down a well-tread path of pointless intrigue while neglecting a jungle of complex issues about how the psychology of trained killers interacts with a wild, unregulated natural environment. Thankfully those issues have been addressed with aplomb and insight by far better films (Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket for example). Basic does well to steer clear -- the film is not up to the challenge.
So without probing a single human emotion or confronting any of the thorny psychological issues surrounding the training of military killers, Basic tells the story of Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), a tough-as-nails instructor who trains elite Ranger forces in Panama. Known for his grueling exercises, mental persecution of recruits, and use of "training accidents" to eliminate unworthy pupils, West has created generations of assassins who hate him for the cruelty he has exacted upon them. When West and six recruits fail to return on time from a training mission into the jungle, Army brass fly over the location and witness three of his soldiers engaged in an intrasquad firefight.
With one dead trainee, one in the hospital, and three missing in the jungle with their drill sergeant, it comes down to Raymond Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) to explain what happened--but he's not talking. Beliving that rookie interrogator Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) lacks what it takes to get inside Dunbar's head, Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly of Wings fame) calls on old friend and former West student Tom Hardy (Travolta) to help scratch the soldier's surface. We're told repeatedly about Hardy's colorful past as a possibly dirty DEA agent, and his unconventional interrogation tactics fit the bill. But as he gets Dunbar to recount what happened in the jungle, we're dragged through a Rashomon-like point-of-view reconstruction of the events. And in case you don't get the point, fellow survivor and disgraced gay son of a joint chief Levi Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) tells you, "There a layers to the truth. Things are not what they seem."
All character development is sacrificed to reinforce this point. McTiernan and sophomore screenwriter James Vanderbilt prefer to liberally spread cheap twists throughout the film that do nothing to develop any intrigue. Basic leaves its audience wondering what Hardy and Osborne are so worked up about. Apparently people are keeping secrets and a rogue band of soldiers who have disappeared into the jungle might be mixed up in this West business. Or maybe not -- West treated his students with such brutality that it's no surprise to anyone that one of the missing trainees might have killed him.
But thanks to McTiernan's direction, it's not long before you stop caring about any of these details. Technically, Basic seems thrown together at the last minute. Overblown ambient sound buries already confounding dialogue under a relentless assault of propellers and weather while machine gun editing shreds any clue you might have about what is really going on in. The acting is equally distracting, and Travolta devours each of his scenes like a ham sandwich. Connie Nielsen tries on more accents than Rich Little before settling on some strange Scandinavian/Australian amalgam by way of the Deep South.
Before long, the film ends and every hole in the story is plugged up by a final out-of-left-field twist that might leave you scratching your head if you had anything invested in what you just experienced. But the only truth actually revealed at the end of Basic is that Travolta and McTiernan had better think long and hard about their next career move.