There's nothing as effective as a clever non-verbal visual to set the tone of a film. We first hear John Travolta singing in a seedy Panama hotel bathtub shower. He pulls away the curtain and barely drapes a towel around his still fleshy, but 25 pounds trimmer, body. (It's Travolta's Kathy Bates moment.) Grabbing a beer, he confidently sashays to the balcony and chats up the working girls. It's clear the movie is going to be all about John seducing us.
Travolta trained with the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Columbus, Georgia for his role as an Army Ranger-turned DEA agent in Basic, John McTiernan's rain-soaked, highly enjoyable thriller. Tom Hardy (Travolta), rogue ex-soldier and unconventional interrogator, is called on by an old friend, Army base commander Pete Wilmer (Timothy Daly) to find out what happened to legendary Army Ranger drill instructor Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson). West's elite cadets were on an "inspired" training exercise held during a raging hurricane. Only two soldiers, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), the gay son of a Joint Chiefs of Staff official, and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) have returned. Wilmer couldn't get Dunbar to talk, so he called on Hardy, whose interrogation technique is equally legendary.
We see during flashbacks that West, Hardy's former teacher, was a tough, mean-spirited bastard. Was he fragged, or did he trip over his own rain-soaked weapon? Who killed the other guys? As she was in The Hunted, Connie Nielsen is not only miscast as military police Captain Julia Osborne; she nearly ruins the movie. Reed thin and shifting in and out of a variety of weird accents, Nielsen can't find her footing. Get this! Weighing in at 100 pounds, she has a fight scene with John!
Travolta flirts up a storm with everyone, but Nielsen not only doesn't react, she's confused. Given her character's circumstances in the movie, confusion is implausible. If Nielsen was playing her role properly-instead of being intimated by John Travolta-she would be condescending to Hardy.
McTiernan may have let Nielsen's accent run wild, but Giovanni Ribisi's voice has strangely and effectively matured (or morphed in post-production) into a deep baritone. Ribisi is the only actor who recognizes that his character is the star of his own life-movie and that, rightly so, Kendall is bothered by the interloping investigator.
This is demonstrably a vainglorious performance, but one that is so delicious it's hypnotic. You can't take your eyes off Travolta. He primps, he poses, he reclines, and he smokes. He's the posturing star of the movie and Hardy is written precisely to exploit Travolta's delightful grasp of this. Travolta doesn't bother to act with anyone. He's performing and the other actors just stand near him and recite their lines. Nielsen has the most trouble working alone.
Putting Travolta's diva-like press aside, McTiernan situates his star in pounding rain at every opportunity. It could not have been an easy few months on location for a demanding prima donna.
McTiernan does love his star, and Travolta eats every line of dialogue with gusto. Jackson, no slouch at scene-stealing, is Travolta's match. Jackson doesn't have a nude scene, but he does chew up as much scenery as he can.
The story doubles up, backs up, and twists and turns. It will take another viewing to see if the story holds up or stumbles apace to its ending.
Maybe it holds up. Maybe not.
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