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As much as it pains me, I am going to try to make it through this review of Basic, the new unreliable narrator flick, without mentioning The Usual Suspects or Rashomon. For to invoke either would elevate this mess and tarnish two films that, while amazing on their own, may have done more bad than good in the overall scheme of cinema. I also vow to avoid all of the easy jokes that one invites when making a Thriller for Dummies, and then naming it Basic.

It starts with a bad process shot in a helicopter, where Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) barks orders at his Rangers-in-training as they are about to drop into a godforsaken Panama jungle. Actually, it starts with a really unnecessary history lesson about the French and their first attempt to dig the Panama Canal, but then it's on to West being drowned out by the thump of the chopper blades. I thought that the mismixed soundtrack was a sign of poor filmmaking when it turns out to be director John McTiernan (the intellectual Michael Bey) dabbling in a clumsy attempt at motif.

Two of the Rangers (Brian Van Holt and Giovanni Ribisi) make it back but everyone else is dead. Chief Warrant Officer Pete Wilmer (Timothy Daly) and Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) must get to the bottom of the mystery before Dunbar (Van Holt) gets transported elsewhere.

Why the short timeframe? I don't really know, but a script with this many problems needs an artificial clock to keep things moving fast enough that the slowest members of the audience might not notice the plot holes and twist telegraphs.

The only thing Wilmer can think to do is to call Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a former Ranger and negotiator with a checkered past. Hardy and Osborne bicker and flirt according to union guidelines while they ping-pong between Ribisi and Van Holt, who try to pull a transparent Witness for the Prosecution gambit.

To go any farther with a plot diagram would rob any reader of any shed of interest this slop might spark. Suffice to say, if this picture ever gets more than a beat or two ahead of you, you might want to cut down on any activities you might be involved in that threaten your brain cell count.

Through the flashback sequences, told by the two surviving Rangers, we learn that their squad includes a girl. Now, maybe I'm just the evil misogynist I've oft been accused of being, but I was taken aback that the girl in the crew was just there and no one mentioned it as anything out of the ordinary. Can anyone clear this one up for me?

As there is to be no more real plot dissection, let's get on to the performances. Travolta coasts through his overwritten role using his other character, the one from Broken Arrow. On the other hand, Connie Nielsen attempts an awful southern accent in her portrayal of the plucky female sidekick, in order to differentiate from her turn as the plucky female sidekick in the slightly worse The Hunted. Ribisi proves once again that he is the missing Sutherland with a mouthful of marbles performance that oddly echoes Ryan Phillippe in The Way of the Gun.

Although burdened with an awful script, the twists and turns are telegraphed even louder by the obvious casting. Travolta runs into an old buddy working in the hospital, played by Harry Connick Jr. It's too long for a cameo, and he's not enough of a star for one either. This means that Connick Jr's character will become much more pivotal than his introduction should give away. Both Enemy of the State and Executive Decision played this game right by throwing in big names (Gabriel Byrne and Steven Seagal, respectively) in nothing roles so that the viewer couldn't use their previous knowledge of the actors to their advantage.

On the same note, if you're watching the squeaky clean guy who was that good brother on "Wings" and is the voice of Superman as he asks our hero to investigate and you trust him for an instant, you will be asked to reapply for your fanboy credentials.

Basic wants to be at least a great episode of "Columbo" but doesn't even make for a great episode of "JAG." It yanks the audience's chain while it "reveals" things we saw coming a week and a half before the characters did.

I know that some people will give me a hard time, saying that it's all explained by the ending. To which I say: the ending is biggest copout of the entire picture. It was an ending that worked okay in the '80s horror classic April Fool's Day but here it just makes the two hours I spent in the theater even more wasted than usual with a John McTiernan flick. Maybe he'll go back to savaging Norman Jewison films, but given the guarantee that this picture will make a whole lot of loot I'm sure he can do whatever he wants and I can just weep silently for cinema.

What's It Worth? $3.25

Jordan Rosa

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