starring John Travolta and Sam Jackson
3 stars

The first thing to understand about Basic --the basic thing, let's say-- is that although the commercials make it look like a war movie, it is not, for which we can all be grateful. 

No, Basic is a plot-twisty whodunnit. If The Usual Suspects died, and its body turned to cheese, and then that cheese-body was brought back to life by running electricty through its groin, you would have a film much like Basic.

The premise: Sam Jackson is an asshole colonel taking six Army Rangers into a Panamanian jungle for a training mission. Sixteen hours later, 2 Rangers come back, the rest are dead. The only way to find out what happened is to bring in John Travolta to interrogate them, so that's what they do. From there, we proceed to a Rashomon-lite style story in which we see one guy's version of events, then the other guy's version, then the first guy's, and so on, unearthing twist after earth-shattering twist until the movie's over.

Basic is bad, but it's not offensively bad. In fact it has a fair chunk of lunk-headed charm, much of it coming from a thick-looking Travolta as DEA agent/interrogator Tom Hardy. Travolta is a complete and total ham in this movie, but let's face it: ham tastes good. Some nice thick slices of ham, with a little mustard? Delicious. So it is with Travolta, who brings his grinning, smug, over-the-top charm to Hardy with the same game enthusiasm he brought to Psychlo leader Terl in Battlefield Earth. He grins, he leers, he tries to light soaked cigarettes, he fires off rather smartly-written dialogue in the early scenes, playing slick mind games with the soldiers, hitting the numbers on the plot twists like a movie star, interrogating rings around Connie Nielsen, the girl interrogator he's been brought in to replace. 

The problem is, after about the third or fourth plot twist, the whole story starts to lose its traction. This starts with the blurry confusion in keeping track of all the different Ranger characters we keep flashing back to. I can figure out the girl soldier, and the gay soldier, and the black soldier, but in the dim light and driving rain, it's pretty tough to keep the white guys apart. Which one's Mueller? The shirtless guy? And then one of these other white guys is the non-gay white guy who's back at the base...? It gets a little fuzzy.

Then, it gets a lot fuzzy. It was at the harrowing reveleation that "Ray Dunbar is black", as the film slips to a slo-mo shot of Connie Nielsen as she digests the implication of this fact, that I realized I had no idea what was going on. Was I dumb? Had I not been paying attention? Could I just not keep up? Or was the story just getting ridiculouser and ridiculouser, coasting towards the goofy finish on pure Travolta jazz and the eventual return of Sam Jackson to add some more star charm? 

Turns out it was the last one. But that's all right, because the amiable tone of the movie holds even as the plot flies off the rails. Once we're past the part of the film when we're wondering how it makes sense and into the part when we realize it doesn't, we get to just sit back, slurp up the final couple of goofy twists and crack a beer with the stars at the end. I've had worse times at the movies.

At the end of the screening, a guy with a news camera was polling people for their reactions -- "Didja like the movie? Good? Bad? Indfferent?" Pretty much everybody shuffled past the guy without making eye contact, and I understood why. I'd watched the whole plot collapse in front of me, but I had a vague sense of having been entertained nevertheless. I don't know what I would have said either.