Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Basic (2003)


(director: John McTiernan; screenwriter: James Vanderbilt; cinematographer: Steve Mason; editor: George Folsey Jr; music: Klaus Badelt/Ramin Djawadi; cast: John Travolta (Agent Tom Hardy), Connie Nielsen (Cpt. Julia Osborne), Samuel L. Jackson (Sgt. Nathan West), Brian Van Holt (Dunbar), Giovanni Ribisi (Levi Kendall), Roselyn Sanchez (Nunez), Timothy Daly (Colonel Bill Styles), Harry Connick Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Pete Wilmer), Taye Diggs (Pike), Dash Mihok (Mueller), Cristian de la Fuente (Castro); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Mike Medavoy/Arnie Messer; Columbia Pictures; 2003)

“It was hard to laugh at this dumb military thriller because it was so numbing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Basic” is a lemon poured over unappetizing red herrings. The film tastelessly piles on one plot twist after another and in an unfair way attempts to continually mislead the viewer with erroneous info. Perhaps the worst cinema crime Basic commits is that after all the disinformation, the viewer stops caring about the characters and the story. The plot is so muddled that I don’t think it can reasonably be explained, as not only the viewer but the cast is also probably confused (By the film’s end the cast seems to be reeling from all the silly changes in plot). The good news is that the unbelievable plot can’t be revealed as a spoiler to those who haven’t seen the film.

Director John McTiernan’s (“DieHard“/”The Hunt for Red October“) military thriller stars John Travolta, sexily garbed in a tight fitting black T-shirt and sporting a short military haircut, who keeps his cold streak alive of being in one bad film after another since “Pulp Fiction.” Travolta’s co-star in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson, joins him for the first time since “Pulp.” Jackson plays a sadistic Army Ranger drill-sergeant with a cocky swagger, Nathan West. Jackson is in another motormouth bad guy role but this time with punchless dialogue and as a less than appealing character. “Basic” takes the entire cast down as James Vanderbilt’s script is so retarded that despite the efficiency of the filming techniques, there are so many soggy holes in the film that it seems as if a couple of the reels got lost in a hurricane and the reels that played should have been lost in a hurricane. I guess the idea was to do a Rashomon thing and build a mystery story around an army investigation, where each witness has a different version. The film stuck with that theme for awhile, and then became more obscure as it mixed in plot lines from a host of other recent military films such as “A Few Good Men” and “A Soldier’s Story” until the basic story went into a freefall. “Basic” jettisoned the basic rules of film-making and went so far overboard in trying to be cleverly vague that it just became a lost cause as a movie venture. A film that was so bad, that it was really bad (It was hard to laugh at this dumb military thriller because it was so numbing). Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a classic on how such a themed film should be executed, while Basic points to how it’s done when you get hacks to carry out the mission.

The film begins well enough explaining how the French failed to build the Panama Canal. But it’s all downhill after the film’s first minute. We are introduced to a former Ranger bounced for undisclosed reasons who is now a party animal. He is a rogue DEA agent named Tom Hardy (Travolta), who is being investigated under bribery charges. Hardy’s the bad-boy who makes a grand entrance on the set as he showers, handles calls on his cell phone, flirts with a Mardi Gras party-goer on the street below his balcony residence, and smokes so coolly that one would think lung cancer was a myth. Hardy is asked as a favor by his old army pal, the commander of a military police base in Panama City, Colonel Bill Styles (Daly), to secretly help his woman in-house investigator, the rigid by-the-book, Captain Osborne (Connie Nielsen), whose main problem in acting is trying to maintain a proper southern accent (Something she never accomplishes), in a possible murder investigation (No dead bodies were found). This is a messy murder case involving a possible fragging and the colonel strongly suggests, to the captain’s chagrin, that this calls for a man in charge of the investigation and the man he has in mind is conveniently located nearby in Panama City. The colonel introduces Hardy as the best interrogator anyone’s ever seen, someone who can “get into your head faster than you can tie your shoes.” Yes sir, I can understand why the sexist colonel wants a man — a man is more likely to tie his shoes than a woman!

There were six Ranger soldiers Mueller, Pike, Dunbar, Kendall, Castro, Nunez, who as part of their training exercise go into the jungle in a chopper in a full-blown hurricane with Sergeant West, and only two returned–the temperamental Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and the anxiety-ridden ostracized homosexual son of a general, a hospitalized Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi). The straight-laced Captain Osborne gets nowhere questioning Dunbar, as the Ranger says he will only speak to a fellow Ranger. The colonel then sends for Hardy to make a hurry up investigation before the FBI investigates, as his career can be ruined by such a scandal. Hardy maneuvers the suspects by using unorthodox questioning methods to get one version from Dunbar and another version from Kendall, while Osborne’s role calls for her to frown with disapproval over the loose way Hardy interrogates each suspect and be put off by Travolta’s flirtations. Osborne is to get it on with Travolta, perhaps, in another movie, because with the investigation and all there was just no time to fool around in this film. With each witness version the film goes into a flashback to see how West, a hated man, was murdered and how the remaining soldiers took sides and fought among themselves. But complications develop and the film runs with its theme that ‘nothing is as it seems.’ The only thing that seems to check out is that the film seems empty and by the time of its last conclusion, after many false ones, a drug operation and a rogue unit of former Rangers who call themselves Section 8 are involved in an endlessly chaotic plot that concludes just as obscurely as when the film began.