dir. McTiernan

Opens Fri March 28

Various Theaters

Two summers ago, John Travolta starred in the disappointingly paltry Swordfish. Playing his usual smarmy, self-satisfied chump, Travolta was a high-stakes bank robber who used his ill-gotten loot to finance his own vigilante anti-terrorism warfare. The movie was notable only because Halle Berry was paid $500,000 to show off her breasts, and because the story ends with Travolta torpedoing Osama bin Laden's yacht. What is remarkable is that the film was released three months before September 11.

Travolta reprises a similar role in Basic. Here, he plays a chest-thumping (and ball-scratching) American patriot who will take any means necessary to achieve his red, white, and blue endgame. He is a DEA agent in Panama called in to investigate a murder at a local army training station. (Six army ranger commandos were sent on a jungle training mission; two return to report that the much-maligned drill sergeant is dead, as well as four other rangers.)

What is captivating about the role is that, again, he haphazardly stumbles into the middle of a jumbled national debate over patriotism and morality. Travolta's character, Tom Hardy, is enchanting because he mirrors an internal conflict for so many Americans: We want to believe that patriotism is a virtue, but also understand that it can poison the mind.

Then again, this tension is a mere subtext to the film, and who really cares? After all, Basic is less a war movie than a fast-paced whodunit. It's an engrossing murder mystery that just happens to have a gleefully mean-spirited drill sergeant as the victim (Samuel L. Jackson) and a squad of disgruntled army rangers as the suspects.

The story may not be wholly original--and in the end may not entirely add up--but nonetheless, Basic is well-produced and fun to watch. It adopts plot twists, tricks, and flips that would make Agatha Christie swoon. Every character arrives on the scene shouldering a heavy motive and shrouded with their own mystery, from the stoic and square-jawed all-American G.I. to the wounded, Truman Capote-esque, "don't ask, don't tell" soldier. And the further Travolta digs into the mystery, the muddier the truth becomes. Not high cinema by a long shot, but fun to watch.