First of all, the good news: Basic is a vast improvement on director John McTiernan's last movie. Now the not-so-good news: that loser was the dimwitted Rollerball, so McTiernan had nowhere to go but up.
Meanwhile, the famine/feast syndrome of Travolta's career continues apace, with the man's suspect eye for a quality project leading you to wonder whether he actually reads scripts while piloting one of his jets. The ratio of famine to feast would certainly suggest so. Still, if there's one thing JT lurves, regardless of the film's quality, it's munching through scenery - and in Basic's Tom Hardy, he gets ample opportunity in a role that fits him like a glove: a degenerate, swaggering charmer with self-absorption issues.
As far as Basic being the first screen rehitching of Pulp Fiction's legendary jabbering duo, however... Well, Samuel L Jackson might as well have stayed home for this one. Not that there's anything wrong with his performance as a despised special-forces mentor who goes missing in the hurricane-battered Panamanian jungle with four of his Ranger recruits, even if it is cut from that over-familiar cloth of shouty drill sergeants. No, it's just the fact that the story's structure dictates this ain't much of a reunion.
With Jackson on Basic's periphery, Travolta's face-off partner is Connie Nielsen. As Captain Julia Osborne, the Danish Gladiator star's a stone-faced, by-the-book officer who, per James Vanderbilt's script, must remain impervious to Hardy's roguish charm for at least half the running time. She's paired with the former Ranger to persuade surly survivors Brian Van Holt and Giovanni Ribisi to reveal what went down during Jackson's jungle-training exercise. Soon, Hardy has them spinning wildly conflicting, Rashômon-style tales of murder, chaos and conspiracy. Who's telling the truth? Who's lying through their teeth? And how many accents can Nielsen squeeze into one film?
This sort of military who-done-what was accomplished far more powerfully in Courage Under Fire, although admittedly, McTiernan's aims aren't as ambitious - he's just out to craft an efficient seat-filler. And he thinks he's on to a winning formula by directing Basic like a muscular detective show, zapping between suspects, expositional chats and jungle flashbacks at a breathless pace (it runs to just 98 minutes, proving the Die Hard director can still keep things lean).
But Basic wants to have its trash and eat it too, stacking on twists, switches and plot U-bends that defy everything that's come before. Who can keep up when the film's yanking the rug out from under you in virtually every scene? By the time a loose-end-tying climax of jaw-dropping ludicrousness arrives, you'll be ready to check in to plot-twist rehab.
If we were Travolta's agent, we'd be getting on the phone to Quentin Tarantino right about now.