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Mysteries in the jungle

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Although presumably a mere accident of production and distribution schedules, the appearance of John McTiernan's new film, Basic, demonstrates the American film industry's uncanny penchant for seizing the moment. Just in time to jump on the war wagon, Hollywood once again releases a military flick. The movie, however, suggests another, not entirely unknown aspect of the armed services: their documented tendency, despite reiterated public utterances about honor and integrity, to breed, then cover up, criminal conduct.

            The story concerns an official investigation into a complicated and puzzling incident. It's the sort of military mystery that hints at a certain ambivalence about the institution, an ambivalence that the recruiting posters and the media cheerleaders conveniently ignore.

            The military mystery, which often turns into a courtroom drama, itself constitutes something of a subgenre of the form, usually dealing with the efforts of a zealous, outranked appointed attorney to determine the guilt or innocence of some unjustly accused soldier/sailor/marine; e.g., A Soldier's Story, A Few Good Men, High Crimes. Other versions show an official military investigator taking on the traditional role of the detective to discover the truth about some crime, usually a murder. The official tries, in short, to find the answer to the familiar question: Whodunit? The answer usually turns out to implicate others in the higher echelons of the service hierarchy, e.g., Courage Under Fire, The General's Daughter.

            In Basic, John Travolta, who portrayed a similar character in The General's Daughter, plays Tom Hardy, a former Army Ranger and current DEA agent with something of a shady reputation, currently working in Panama. An old army buddy, Colonel Styles (Tim Daly), requests his assistance in a puzzling incident. A brutal jungle training mission, led by a cruel, sadistic sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson), has somehow gone disastrously wrong, resulting in the apparent deaths of the sergeant and four of the soldiers. The two survivors, one wounded, initially refuse to speak of the incident to Styles' officer in charge, Lieutenant Osborne (Connie Nielsen). They then tell conflicting stories about the death of the sergeant and their comrades.

            The movie unfolds through flashbacks Hardy elicits from the men during his interrogation. The frequent flashbacks present the same events through a variety of points of view, as the soldiers' stories change under the interrogator's scrutiny. The tellings and retellings of the story most obviously demonstrate a connection with that grand cinematic chestnut, Rashomon. But they also recall an older source: the complex narratives of some of the important modernist artists, like Joyce, Faulkner, and Dos Passos. As in those works of the past, the twists and turns of plot, character, and meaning suggest once again that truth is a rare, and perhaps ultimately unknowable, entity.

            As the story shifts back and forth from Hardy's interrogation to the violent confusion of the training exercise, reality itself begins to change. His combination of psychological manipulation, imaginative insight, logical reasoning, and bold leaps of intuition show how the detective himself can create the facts he seeks. Following one of the great traditions of the thriller, nothing in the story ever remains stable. People and actions undergo an almost constant metamorphosis, always turning into someone or something else. By the end of the movie, as the mysteries spiral into ever greater complication, almost everyone, from the detective to the criminals, reveals another meaning, another self.

            The script and direction maintain a fine sense of pace, as incidents multiply and change, spawning ever increasing confusion. Moreover, both the mystery and its solution provide just the sort of satisfying puzzle that only a fictional criminal could invent and only a fictional detective could solve. Many of the people and events border on the purely preposterous, which even the director's sleight-of-hand and clever footwork cannot entirely obscure. The generally compelling and entertaining narrative moves quickly enough to gloss over the utterly factitious construct that lies beneath the several layers of mystery and obfuscation.

            Travolta dominates the movie with a good deal of offhand, wise-guy charm and a quite imposing physical presence. Alternately funny, angry, violent, and always ironic, he handles the not entirely pure and admirable character of Tom Hardy with considerable aplomb. Connie Nielsen, as the officer who reluctantly works with Travolta, attains an acceptable level of competence, while Samuel L. Jackson, as the sadistic sergeant, pretty much imitates all the brutal drill instructors in all the military movies in Hollywood's long, heroic past.

            If one character sums up the film's credibility problems, it must be Giovanni Ribisi, who plays an Army Ranger. Ribisi is a perfectly competent actor, but also a wispy, diminutive fellow who hardly looks big enough and strong enough to qualify for the Cub Scouts, let alone the elite Rangers, who rappel out of helicopters and kill people with their teeth. His casting suggests some of the curious thinking behind Basic.

Basic, starring John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt, Tim Daly, Taye Diggs, Cristian De La Fuente, Dash Mihok, Roselyn Sanchez, Harry Connick, Jr.; screenplay by James Vanderbilt; directed by John McTiernan. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

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