Basic

(2003) * 1/2 R
98 min. Paramount. Director: Michael Caton-Jones. Cast: Sharon Stone, David Morrissey, Charlotte Rampling, David Thewlis, Hugh Dancy.

Basic is the sort of calendar-filling misfire that clogs resumes and sits on video store shelves. The hint of something more ambitious lies under the egomaniacal star turns and a convoluted screenplay which is hardly worth the effort to comprehend, but Basic plays like someone's bad idea to blend the wicked trickery of a Sleuth, Deathtrap, or The Usual Suspects with the rainy war-torn intrigue of a Casualties of War.

That someone is James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls), perhaps best known for his stint at the USC School of Cinema-Television. There, he hoped to get an A+ in screenwriting for his Basic script, but instead got a C. I made that last part up...I think. Somehow, this script found its way into the hands of Pulp Fiction cohorts John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (who, for the record, share no scenes together) and director John McTiernan, whose craft has slipped steadily since the twin peaks of Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October.

Travolta plays DEA Agent Tom Hardy, who's called in by Army buddy Chief Warrant Officer Pete Wilmer (Timothy Daly) to investigate a botched training exercise led by Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson). Travolta must contend with a reticent witness (Brian Van Holt) and a reluctant partner, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), who remains unimpressed when told about Hardy, "There is nobody better in a room." Jackson, Nielsen, and Travolta recycle prior performances, but Travolta--God knows why--chose this film to bulk up to fighting shape, perhaps to justify his increasingly unjustifiable paycheck. The most unintentionally mesmerizing characterization comes from Giovanni Ribisi's fey Dr. Evil impression as a hospitalized gay soldier.

With a plot twist that defies the use of Occam's Razor as a screenwriting philosophy, Basic wears its ironic title as a badge of pride, but the glee of the cast and crew in that twist never transfers to the audience--certainly not in the unfocused, unreliable flashbacks which take us to that point--so none but the most hardy of viewers would bother to double back and see this dark film in a new light.

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