Apr 9, 2003 at 12:00 am

Basic is a military mess that uses the age-old Rashomon storytelling technique to jump from revelation to revelation. Much to its detriment, it can’t be bothered to stop for a breath and actually explain what the hell is going on.

John Travolta shows up as ex-ranger and current (well, suspended) DEA agent John Hardy, who is called in to investigate a secret ranger team run by Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) in which every member except two have apparently been killed. Hardy is stuck with goody-two-shoes Army investigator Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) shadowing his every unorthodox move, and the games begin.

Hardy weasels the story out of one of the ranger survivors, Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). Nasty Nate dumped him and a bunch of his fellow soldiers in the Panamanian wilderness during a hurricane, where their objective was to shoot some targets and rendezvous at a checkpoint a few hours later. It doesn’t work out that way: At the meeting place, the choppers land to find just two soldiers, Dunbar and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi, who for some unknown reason speaks like he’s trying to imitate Robin Leach while being strangled); the rest, including West, are dead. Dunbar and Kendall tell varying stories involving internal betrayals and conspiracies ranging from murder to drug trafficking, backtracking and intimating, until Osborne doesn’t know which way her head is screwed on and Hardy pretends that he’s in the same boat.

This is a Travolta vehicle, and the man does his duty chewing scenery right and left, but Basic is really about Osborne’s tedious transformation from total naïf to mostly naïf. She starts out questioning Hardy’s every move, totally oblivious to the fact that the guy obviously knows what he’s doing — she’s probably too busy carefully committing the military rulebook to memory to notice.

By the end, when she’s confronted with a plot-twist mindfuck that even I haven’t quite pieced together, she just throws up her hands and sits down for a beer and breakfast, as exhausted as her audience is at trying to figure out Hardy and his boys. As for me, I needed the whole six-pack.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].