Basic peddles the laziest kind of filmmaking. Its writer, recent film-school grad James Vanderbilt (responsible for the Tooth Fairy horror film Darkness Falls), has concocted a screenplay that chokes to death in a tangle of inexplicable twists and cheap tricks; you could no more follow its plot if it took you by the hand and gave you a flashlight. You'll never convince me that professionals were involved in its making. Director John McTiernan, still trying to wash away the stink of Rollerball, tumbles further into the abyss of Lost Filmmakers. The man who made Die Hard doesn't even try hard anymore.
With a plot involving murder on a military base, Basic may remind some of 1999's The General's Daughter, which also starred John Travolta as an investigator sent to investigate a cover-up. The earlier movie's perverse and disturbing misogyny is here replaced by a wide streak of homophobia -- Giovanni Ribisi appears in Basic as a gay Army Ranger who sounds like Jimmy Stewart played by Kermit the Frog. And Connie Nielsen, a grating Dane with questionable taste in scripts (The Hunted), affects the Southern drawl of a junior high kid in a Civil War re-enactment as she steps into the role of Travolta's reluctant partner. Fortunately, there is no nude female corpse tied to tent pegs for the camera to linger on; the (presumably) dead man in Basic is Samuel L. Jackson, an Army Ranger who keeps all his clothes on -- including, oddly, his Mace Windu cape.
Basic really brings to mind a Travolta film from 2000, Battlefield Earth. It's so astonishingly awful that it becomes a sort of kinky pleasure; just when you think Travolta has fallen as far as he can, he pulls out a shovel to see what lies beneath. Sony should have marketed Basic as a comedy, a parody of films like The General's Daughter; audiences lured in by its ominous trailer will find themselves laughing for all the wrong reasons. Of all the abominations for which Travolta has cashed a check since Pulp Fiction, Basic might be the worst -- even counting Battlefield Earth, Lucky Numbers, Domestic Disturbance and Swordfish. Not since George W. Bush alienated the European members of the United Nations has someone squandered so much goodwill.
But Travolta's having a blast as former Ranger Tom Hardy, now a disgraced DEA agent called in by his old pal Pete Wilmer (Tim Daly) to investigate the disappearances and deaths of several soldiers during a training drill in the jungles of Panama. Hardy's a boozer and skirt chaser; he'll admit to Nielsen's Lt. Osbourne that he's drunk in the middle of the day, but only as an excuse for hitting on her.
But because McTiernan and Vanderbilt think they're making a serious mystery, Travolta can get no traction. The script withholds key plot points for no reason. You see -- but don't hear -- characters exchange information that will be revealed later. It's a con to make you think there's something going on. Don't worry -- there isn't.