Basic (2003) Movie Review

I think the primary reason why “Basic”, the new military thriller by John McTiernan (“Rollerball”), doesn’t make me angry as it seems to have made a lot of movie critics, is because I don’t particularly mind being mislead by a movie. To be sure, “Basic” is a movie constructed for the single purpose of proving that you can never go wrong with throwing in as many plot twists as you can. In the case of “Basic”, there are about 10 twists that show up one after another in the final 20 minutes, and not a single one of them has been hinted at beforehand.

The point is, if you think you can guess the film’s twists, think again. The screenplay by James Vanderbilt (“Darkness Falls”) is an illusion, and so are the plots and stories within it. Even when the movie reveals all to the audience, it’s just one more twist in a movie built on the notion of revealing twists. Which is to say, you sit there waiting for another twist to rear its twisty head, because the film’s last twist makes nearly as much sense as the twist that came before it, and the one before that, and the one before… Well you get the idea.

Another reason why many critics and movie aficionados find “Basic” lacking is the duplicitous nature of the screenplay. Movie fans that pride themselves on having seen a lot of movies like to think that we can spot a film’s twist ending from a mile away. (Take the recent “Eternal Blood” for example.) And when we’re unable to predict the twist, for no other reason except that the screenplay is bound and determine to cheat, the ego can get a bit bruised.

I liked “Basic”. I liked that John Travolta (“Get Shorty”) is once again playing a smarmy, even cocky, character that seems to have all the answers without even trying. I also liked that Connie Nielsen (“One Hour Photo”), sporting the worst Southern accent ever put to celluloid, really doesn’t like having a DEA agent with a crooked past meddle in her official investigation. I liked that writer James Vanderbilt seems to know nothing about military protocol, or the law for that matter. Also, I didn’t mind that director John McTiernan and cinematographer Steve Mason seems incapable of framing the movie without cropping the screen with shadows and darkness.

The plot is this: While out on a training mission in the Panama jungle, tough Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) and most of his Rangers unit go missing. Two are found alive, but one is wounded. A third man is found dead, killed by one of the two survivors. When base investigator Lt. Julia Osborne (Nielsen) is unable to elicit answers from the two survivors, the base commander (Timothy Daly) calls in his old friend Tom Hardy (Travolta), a DEA agent suspended until accusations of bribery against him are cleared up. The job: Discover the truth about what happened during the training exercise.

So there you have it. It’s a basic premise, and the movie throws in one of those “multiple versions of the same story” gimmick ala Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” to muck things up. If you like Travolta, and can stand Nielsen’s awful accent (an accent, mind you, that seems to come and go depending on what location she’s at), then “Basic” is a pretty good movie. It’s not a murder mystery, because even the lamest murder mystery gives you some hints as to the “real story” behind the story.

“Basic” isn’t concern with telling the audience a story. It’s only interested in getting one over the audience. Well, not one, but two, or three…or maybe a dozen…

John McTiernan (director) / James Vanderbilt (screenplay)
CAST: John Travolta … Hardy
Connie Nielsen … Osborne
Samuel L. Jackson … West
Timothy Daly … Styles
Giovanni Ribisi … Kendall
Brian Van Holt … Dunbar

Buy Basic on DVD