#10 in my Ranking of John McTiernan films.
I was with this movie for maybe two-thirds of it. I wasn’t quite loving it, but I was going along with the twisting narrative and contradictory stories well enough. It was a lesser version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but it worked. And then it took the twists into overdrive and I just lost it. James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter, has said that he wanted to make a movie where no one would guess the killer in the first ten minutes. Well, he succeeded because this movie is impossible to predict based on the evidence it presents until about the 95 minute mark. So, I guess that’s some sort of success.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel West takes six soldiers deep into Panama’s jungles for a training exercise. They don’t make their extraction point and the local base commander goes out to find them to discover one soldier carrying another and firing live rounds at a third. Colonel West is nowhere to be found, and the last living and conscious soldier isn’t doing any talking. So, the base commander calls in an old buddy, a former Army Ranger and current DEA agent on the outs for suspicions of bribery, Tom Hardy played by John Travolta, to come in and unofficially question the soldier.
What follows for the next hour or so is an investigation of the event from the two survivors who have conflicting narratives. I was okay with this. I wasn’t trying to penetrate to the truth, just letting the different tales happen, confident that none of what they were saying was completely the truth (this ain’t my first movie). One says that Colonel West was killed by one of the other soldiers, and the other says that it was another soldier, both drilling down into different reasons. The first was for personal animus and the second for a small drug operation run out of the base’s hospital. This is fine. The differences of the stories build on each other well, deepening the mystery while providing new clues.
And then the movie gets stupid. It turns out that one of the soldiers isn’t who he says he is, having stolen the dog tags off another soldier who had fallen in the jungle, and no one on base noticed. Okay…I’ll believe it. It’s thin, but I’ll believe it. The problem is that it completely and entirely changes the nature of the conflicting stories we’ve already heard and the movie only gives us a very quick montage of things we’ve seen before but cast correctly in order to catch up, and it doesn’t slow down from there, piling new revelation on top of new revelation, at one point revealing a piece of information that was given to Travolta early in the film but we didn’t hear because reasons (a personal bugaboo of mine).
Nothing that follows makes sense considering what came before and the movie doesn’t tell the new revelations at a pace that audiences can absorb. You want to talk badly paced movies? Basic is badly paced. It’s too fast. But, slowing down wouldn’t fix too much because none of what happens in the final twenty minutes or so was built up. It’s all a trick to get a particular type of movie viewer to think he’s right at the beginning of the film and then end up wrong. Let’s just say that this is less that entertaining fare.
That being said, it’s actually filmed rather intelligently. The different stories are presented dramatically and they’re filmed from the perspectives of the person telling it. There are strong visual cues that relationships and dynamics are completely different from one telling to the next. The film is almost entirely filmed at night in a hurricane, and it uses that visual well. It’s a good looking and intelligently filmed stupid movie.
It saddens me that this is probably how McTiernan’s career is going to end. After this he entered his legal and bankruptcy troubles and he hasn’t made a movie since, and I doubt he’ll ever get the funding for another one. He obviously hadn’t lost his ability to make a movie. He just needed to work off of a better script.