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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
I Love a Mystery
by Betty Jo Tucker

Trying to solve a good whodunit while sitting in a darkened movie theater gives me a great deal of pleasure. I like it even better when the ending isn’t one I’ve seen coming. Take Basic, a military thriller starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, for instance. Each time I thought I had things figured out, everything changed – again and again. With twists and turns almost spinning out of control, it kept me guessing until the very last second.

Yes, I know there are many better films of this genre. The Usual Suspects and Murder on the Orient Express immediately come to mind. But not one of them features as many convoluted surprises as Basic. Truly, nothing is as it seems here – except the dynamic performances of Travolta and Jackson. Although Jackson, portraying a sadistic U.S. Army Ranger drill sergeant, appears in fewer scenes than Travolta, his presence takes over the entire film. It’s the murder of his character that becomes the mystery to be solved by Travolta’s DEA agent, a former Ranger recruited to interrogate survivors of a disastrous training exercise.

When Travolta and Jackson appeared together in Pulp Fiction, their clever banter and cinematic rapport caused a sensation. However, don’t expect a similar reaction to their work in Basic -- they share only a few on-screen minutes. Still, each actor proves his mettle again. Travolta’s swagger and wise-cracking attitude make his arrogant DEA agent fun to watch, while Jackson’s intensity and commanding manner help turn the unsympathetic drill sergeant into a highly compelling character.

Connie Nielsen (One Hour Photo) plays a beautiful lieutenant who assists Travolta with his unconventional interrogation. Tackling this role like she's auditioning for J.Lo’s part in a remake of Enough, Nielsen packs quite a wallop. Her soft Southern Belle accent deceives almost everyone – and if she ever comes near you with a telephone book, be sure to duck and cover.

Like Tears of the Sun, much of the action in Basic takes place at night in a jungle-like setting, so visibility emerges as a problem. Because mystery surrounds what actually happened in the Basic incident – one described in different ways by each survivor (a la Rashomon), director John McTiernan (Die Hard) knew what he was doing. Still, with the addition of a violent hurricane plus unrelenting lightning and thunder, viewers who have sensitive ears or are prone to migraine headaches should be forewarned.

Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in 60 Seconds), as the injured son of a general, and Timothy Daly (formerly of television’s "Wings"), as the chief warrant officer who asks for Travolta’s help, stand out among a strong supporting cast that also includes Harry Connick Jr. (Hope Floats), Taye Diggs (Chicago), and Brian Van Holt (Black Hawk Down). They are, of course, all suspects.

In the spirit of Basic, some parts of my review are not true. Until you see the movie, you’ll just have to guess which ones.

(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "R" for violence and language.)

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