Movie review by Greg Carlson
A smelly, matted-down shaggy dog story with enough red herring to supply a cannery for a year, “Basic” limps into theatres with little prospect of success. On paper, the movie boasts a strong resume: “Die Hard” director John McTiernan, the first on-screen re-teaming of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson since “Pulp Fiction,” plot threads that allow room for pumped-up action sequences as well as steely interrogations, a supporting cast that includes talented performers like Connie Nielson, Taye Diggs, and Brian Van Holt. The weak link, however, is the tortuous, labyrinthine screenplay by James Vanderbilt, which collapses under the weight of its migraine-inducing convolutions, diversions, and smoke-screens.
Jackson plays the boastful, strutting Army Ranger Sgt. Nathan West, a vicious martinet whose idea of a swell time is to send his trainees on exercises in the Panamanian jungle during a gale-force hurricane. A classic caricature of the military sadist, Jackson verbally abuses his soldiers with the kind of language that echoes R. Lee Ermey’s humiliating rhetoric in “Full Metal Jacket.” The training exercise goes horribly wrong, however, and confusion reigns as some of the soldiers are killed after turning against each other during the storm.
Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly), with only a few hours to sort out the mess before it is turned over to higher-ranking authorities, calls on one of his best, head of base MP Julia Osborne (Nielson) to question the two soldiers who survived the mysterious shootout. One of the survivors, however, refuses to speak to anyone other than a fellow Ranger, which cues the appearance of boozy DEA agent Tom Hardy (Travolta), a former Ranger with seemingly little love for West and his tactics. Before you can cry “re-write,” Osborne and Hardy are sparring like an old married couple as they clash over the best ways to extract info from the tight-lipped murder witnesses/suspects.
With a flair for pacing, McTiernan moves the action along at a brisk rate, but once the interrogation scenes begin (which operate as a back and forth, “Rashomon”-like tennis match between the two surviving soldiers), “Basic” breaks down, piling on conflicting details so quickly that the audience gives up on making any sense of the plot. Giovanni Ribisi, usually outstanding in small roles like the one he plays here, tries on a ridiculous accent and hammy affectation that derails any credibility his character might have had. The film is also not aided by the inclusion of several competing versions of what happened during the exercise – seeing them merely adds to our disorientation.
The plot twists are dispatched with such ferocity that the sexual tension between Osborne and Hardy elicits only laughter when the two finally get into a physical tangle. Like everything else in “Basic,” it seems to come out of nowhere. By the film’s final stages, Vanderbilt’s script has completely disintegrated, making suggestions about what is really going on that serve only to negate literally everything that has transpired thus far. Unlike other movies that play head games with their audience (think about classic film noir or “The Usual Suspects,”), “Basic” forgets the rule that if you are going to deceive your viewers, you still need to respect them in the final outcome.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/31/03.