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.
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
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
As Aaron, acting newcomer Guillermo Del Toro (who directed the
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.
To handle the investigation, the base commander calls in his friend,
John Travolta, fresh from his similar success in
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
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
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
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