Dir: John McTiernan. US 2003. 95mins

In a rather odd coincidence of timing, US majors have released three military-themed thrillers in the space of a month: Tears Of The Sun, The Hunted and, now, Basic. More of a whodunnit than the previous two, Basic finds action-director McTiernan (Die Hard) attempting to return to form after his disastrous remake of Rollerball last year. Overly plotted but cunningly structured, the film proves unexpectantly engrossing for its first hour and 15 minutes, before falling apart completely in the final act. In a transparent attempt to outfox the audience, the film-makers have piled on a numbing series of false endings, before offering a final 'surprise' that is so outlandish and glib it seems like a joke. Given the guessing game at the heart of the story, however, commercial prospects for the film look may be brighter than for its two predecessors: in its opening weekend it took $11.5m from 2,876 sites for a $4,000 site average.

The film is set in Panama in the wake of a hurricane that has battered an American army base and much of the surrounding territory. It seems that a group of Special Forces recruits went on a training exercise the day of the storm, under the command of the much-hated Sgt Nathan West (Jackson). Only two of the six trainees returned. The whereabouts of West and the four remaining recruits remain a mystery.

Army interrogator Capt Julie Osborne (Nielsen, with a thick and inconsistent Southern accent) is getting nowhere in her investigation. Tom Hardy (Travolta), an ex-Army Ranger turned DEA agent, currently under investigation for accepting bribes from local drug-dealers, is asked to look into the strange incident. He has only five-and-a-half hours to solve the case before the Feds arrive.

Working against, as much as with, Osborne, Hardy questions the two survivors. But Dunbar and a badly wounded Kendall (Van Holt and Ribisi) tell wildly divergent stories about what happened and, adding insult to injury, change their stories every time they are caught in a lie. While Hardy and Nielsen disagree on who is telling the truth, both begin to suspect a cover-up by Army brass.

The plot twists and turns are unrelenting and, finally, ridiculous, but McTiernan and screenwriter Vanderbilt have come up with a set of well-staged flashbacks which are told from the revolving perspectives. Everyone, it seems, had a motive for killing the sadistic West, including Hardy, who once served under him.

Borrowing liberally from Rashomon, A Soldiers Story and a host of other recent whodunnits, the film feels unusually derivative. Certain developments, such as when Hardy starts believing obvious lies, feel unconvincing and false, but much also manages to remain taut and exciting. Rain pours down constantly, while flashing lights from police cars, flashlights, lightning strikes and neon signs provide a constant sense of colour and excitement as well as a convenient source of illumination.

Acting is acceptable throughout, although Ribisi's fluttering gay soldier seems to have wondered in from a Tennessee Williams' play. The film's Achilles heel, however, is its insistence on adding one more plot twist, then another and another, until the audience just do not care anymore. The actual ending, when it finally does come, plays like a feelgood denouement better suited to the two-hour pilot of a TV series than to a rough-and-tumble R-rated thriller.

Pro co: Columbia Pictures, Intermedia Films, Phoenix Pictures
US dist: Colmbia
Intl sales: Intermedia
Exec prods: Moritz Borman, Nigel Sinclair, Basil Iwanyk, Jonathan Krane
Prods: Mike Medavoy, Arnie Messer, James Vanderbilt, Michael Tadross
Scr: James Vanderbilt
Cinematographer: Steve Mason
Pro des: Dennis Bradford
Ed: George Folsey Jr
Music: Klaus Badelt
Main cast: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Van Holt, Giovanni Ribisi, Taye Diggs