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Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

April 14, 2003

Positive Movie Essay: The USA PATRIOT Act-ion Films, The Hunted and Basic

I was watching Fox News today, as usual, and I started to wonder, when did war coverage "jump the shark"? A lot of times when shows start to level off (and this one really couldn't beat the high of seeing Saddam Hussein's statue pulled down, doused with gasoline and set on fire, and then put out with the urine of cheering Iraqis and Americans), producers try to make them better by introducing terrible new characters. So there was Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch, David Berkowitz on That 70s Show, and now Angry Looters on Fox News All War All The Time. Message to Fox: I want to see happy Iraqis, or happy because they've been liberated, not because they just "won" a free car, which they're now using to cart off treasure from the main museums of Baghdad. Otherwise, I love your coverage. Keep up the good work, especially on the No Spinning Zone with Mr. Reilly!!!

At troubled times like these, I think the most important thing we can do is to rally around the flag and our military. Until yesterday, I had done so by replacing my dogeared and kind of sticky bedside copy of Playboy January 1993 (Anna Nicole's first appearance) with an issue of Soldier of Fortune, which is now also in the same condition. But then I realized that movies make the perfect Valentine to our troops. And with such offerings as Basic and The Hunted, there's no way to go wrong!

The Hunted is an emotionally powerful film about the consequences of conflict. At the opening, our hero -- or so we think! -- is Aaron Hallam, who has infiltrated the country of Sermobia because they are ethnically cleaning their neighborhoods, which is not as nice as it sounds. Upset by the bloodshed, Aaron kills a main Serbomophone leader, which is satisfying as far as it goes, but isn't quite as good as killing every minute for the rest of one's life. Upon returning to the United States, he becomes a crazed animal rights activist who is paranoid and believes that the military is trying to murder him.

When the military shows up to murder him, Aaron figures out a way to kill all of them and then escape in the woods for more PETA rallies. The FBI tries to chase him, but because he isn't an Arab, they are unable to locate him, and frankly, aren't that interested in trying. So it's up to mountain man L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) to track him down. Tommy Lee Jones breaks new ground by portraying a law enforcement officer chasing a morally ambiguous fugitive.

You know, they always say that to make a good movie, show -- don't tell. And this movie follows that logic to a T. There are about eight lines of dialogue in the entire movie, and after ten minutes or so, characters communicate with one another only through knife fights. And other movies would have a medical examiner tell you about how killing involves blood. But this movie shows you, and and then shows you some more. Aaron hacks up every supporting character so expertly that he is able to drain each body before they die. In fact, in a new cinematic technique called Splasharound, I myself was doused with blood (pig blood, it turns out; human blood is illegal to use) to get the feel.

As Aaron, acting newcomer Guillermo Del Toro (who directed the classic Blade 2) is brilliant. In his only scene with dialogue (explaining animal rights to a child), he manages to maintain a completely crazy appearance, occasionally winking at the camera, moving his tongue around in his cheek in a move that I think was supposed to look sort of sexual, and then holding up a sign saying "I thought that after an Oscar, I could do better than this one."

The movie contains a powerful message: after fighting overseas, our soldiers are crazy, remorseless killers who will drain all of our blood and use our bodies as pincushions once they get home. So I support President Bush's decision to slash funding for veterans; why should they get my tax money if they're just going to live in the woods and kill me?

The Hunted is a flat-out masterpiece, but it's no Basic. The new film by actionmeister John McTiernan takes the whole idea of a thriller -- of a movie, really -- in bold new directions. Many of you know Keith Keener's rules for a top-notch military thriller: have a staggering number of plot twists and/or have Kelsey Grammar play a hilariously uptight general who gets his comeuppance in the end and/or have a courtroom scene in which someone shouts "You can't handle the truth!" and then winks knowingly at the audience, before adding "Can't we all just get along?"

Basic takes the first route to glory. I won't summarize the plot, because I can't, but it involves an Army Ranger training mission in Panama that encounters a couple of problems, in that everyone involved is killed, starting with the sadistic drill searjeant (Samuel L. Jackson, a.k.a. Shaft). To handle the investigation, the base commander calls in his friend, John Travolta, fresh from his similar success in The General's Daughter in Her Labyrinth the twisty Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation from a few years ago.

Travolta strikes up a quick relationship with his colleague Osborne (Connie Nielsen), and together, they try to get to the bottom of this. Not easy, since they will first meet the only uninjured survivor of the attack, who blames it all on an injured soldier. The injured soldier, Quentin Crisp (Giovanni Abrasivo, so excellent in The Mod Squad), is gay, a fact he conceals by lisping, flopping his limp wrist around, and breaking out into show tunes. He blames the other soldier. Then they both blame a jazz-singing doctor (Harry Connick Jr.) who has been making "drug cocktails" to make the soldiers healthier fighters.

These three plot shifts occur in the first ten minutes of Basic, and the rest of the movie challenges each version of events wholeheartedly and with amazing gusto. The screenplay, by James Vanderbilt (if that is his real name), doubles back hundreds of times in just a few short minutes. Using a new cinematic technique known as "lying," the screenplay for Basic never ceases to surprise the viewer. What if not all the people actually died? What if they weren't using drugs? What if they're not really in the Army? What if the character who seems to be black (since he is played by Taye Diggs, generally regarded as a black actor) actually is Asian? What if this isn't really Panama? Why does John Travolta suddenly groan and say, "Let me reach down in between my legs and....ease the seat back"?

It's a brilliant movie -- every five minutes, we get a monologue that basically tells us that everything we've learned up to that point is actually wrong. But it's the little touches that make the film work, suggesting to us in a million ways that something must be wrong, terribly wrong. Why does Osborne have a southern accent in some lines but not others? Why does John Travolta shout each one of his lines? Why is his body language extremely erotic with the straight soldier but not the gay one?

But it's not just the can-you-outguess-this-one feeling of the movie that makes it wonderful. Travolta's character is the best I have ever seen, because it reminds me so much of me. He has these great zingers for all occasions, he's always a step ahead of the stuffed shirts, and he is a big hit with the ladies. The only difference from me, really, is the fact that I usually think of my great zingers four hours after the conversations in which they'd be useful. And also my excessive sweating problem, which has kind of limited my romantic options except for some personals I've answered in Soldier of Fortune.

Moreover, the movie really knows how to ratchet up the tension. Just when I thought that the movie had topped itself by showing the same bloody gunfight for the ninth time, from a new angle, suddenly one of the characters projectile vomited blood. Say what you will for Citizen Kane, but until you've got a nervous suspect vomiting blood across a room, all the magical Rosebud sleds in the world won't make up for it.

Basic never quits. After spending most of its time as a series of tense interrogations, it suddenly ends as an episode of Eight is Enough, in which we find that everything that happened up to that point was basically a lie. Holy cow! And then, after the movie, John Travolta actually appeared at the theater, pulled his mask off, to reveal himself to be Samuel L. Jackson, who then admitted that he was in fact a military robot. On the way home, I was listening to Prairie Home Companion, when I realized that Guy Noir, Radio Private Eye (he always cracks me up), is in fact John Travolta. And then when I got home, I actually received an email from John Travolta, denying that he was involved in the making of the film. What's the real truth? I suspect that film scholars will be examining Basic for years to figure it out.

Basic isn't the best movie of the year; it's the best six movies of the year. And like The Hunted, it has a powerful message about our soldiers, because it teaches us about the "fog of war." I mean, if training missions are this confusing, imagine how bad war must be! No wonder when they get home to America they become single-minded killing machines desperate to annihilate everything in their path in a blind rage. I'm not worried about the Occupation of Iraq: I'm worried about what happens when the Occupation ends!

Anyway, I predict that Oscar may be "Hunted" next April, but "Basic"-ally, Travolta wins this one easily -- and then takes of his mask and reveals that he is in fact Guillermo Del Toro, just before hacking the presenter, Nicole Kidman, to death.

On a scale of four or five stars, I give both movies four stars. No, I was lying. I meant five stars. Five-and-a-half each, for a total of 17 stars.


Earlier Positive Movie Reviews can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny