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Basic

After a lavish entrance onto the Hollywood stage (and redefining the action genre more than once with films like Die Hard and Predator), John McTiernan was a megastar.

While his eye for detail and directing prowess has never wavered the material he's worked with has gradually decreased in quality and credibility, and audiences have mostly ignored each of his films a little more than the last. The crunch seemed to come with 2001's remake of Rollerball , which garnered scathing reviews, disinterest from most moviegoers and harsh criticism from those who did bother. In fact, his career has somewhat paralleled that of both Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta since the heady post- Pulp Fiction days when everything they touched was considered cool.

But after a long process of overly commercial trash between more credible work from both actors, they can no longer be considered the coolest of the cool cats. Basic, given a damning by US critics, is almost a metaphor for where all three artists' careers are right now - confused and messy but still showing snippets of each man's considerable talent.

On a training mission in the hurricane-swept jungles of Panama, a team of elite Army Rangers goes missing. The search chopper zeroes in on their position to find the last surviving members in a fierce firefight. The two survivors are put in hospital from injuries and detained at the base for questioning respectively. A veteran DEA interrogator with a chequered past involving bribery allegations (Travolta) is bought in by the brass, much to the chagrin of the young, idealistic investigator in charge (Nielsen).

Overcoming their hostility for each other, the two spend the night going from one survivor to the other, trying to get the story straight. Something has happened, but the facts are lost in a conspiracy of betrayal and murder that extend further than anyone imagines.

A brutal ranger corps leader (Jackson) along with most of the squad are missing after the exercise. Everyone seems to have a different story of what happened, but revenge against his cruelty and a drug running operation that leads all the way back to the army base hospital have coloured the truth for everyone.

What's great about the story is that every few minutes, a new layer of deception is revealed in a moment that can make you gasp in shock. What isn't great about it is that the proceedings are peppered with so many realisations about characters and their relationships in the mystery it's almost impossible to keep up (unless you can hurriedly scrawl some sort of chart).

It's told from the underneath first, much of it in flashbacks, the details of which are revealed as we go along until each more shocking truth is revealed. In fact, you'll feel like you've seen something like it before, and you have - 1996's Courage Under Fire, which told a similar story of a military investigator with 'a past' trying to figure out what happened during action gone wrong.

A great cast gives credibility to the roles. As usual, Travolta's truckloads of sugary charisma is his saving grace. Nielsen, last seen in One Hour Photo, holds her own against some bigger names that don't act as good as she does. Proving himself again one of the best of his generation, Giovanni Ribisi throws all his heart and soul into the young injured marine bought to the hospital.

On the whole, Basic should have been better than it was, but if you like a good mystery where the hair sticks up on the back of your neck in an 'Oh My God, that's what happened' moment and don't mind some faults, you'll love it.

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