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Dustin Putman

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Basic (2003)

Directed by John McTiernan
Cast: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Van Holt, Giovanni Ribisi, Timothy Daly, Taye Diggs, Roselyn Sanchez, Dash Mihok, Harry Connick Jr., Cristian de la Fuente, Nick Loren
2003 – 98 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 28, 2003.

"Basic," a military-set thriller, starts off as a mildly intriguing, atmospheric little mystery, tediously segues into flashback after flashback of different people's points-of-view, turns wildly implausible, then more unbelievable yet, and concludes with one of the most infuriating final scenes of any motion picture in recent memory. Directed by John McTiernan (2002's "Rollerball"), the film seemingly exists for only one solid reason: to cruelly play with, and jerk the chain of, every audience member foolish enough to be swindled into a theater showing this pompous joke. 95 minutes of my life hasn't been so thoroughly wasted on a movie since 2002's "Extreme Ops."

When a Ranger training exercise in the hurricane-swept Panama jungle turns disastrous, only two seeming survivors are found: Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi). When Pete Wilmer (Timothy Daly), the head of the Army base, suspects that official inquisitor Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) is going to have trouble getting to the truth, he calls upon an old friend to assist. Enter Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a Jack Daniels-swilling DEA agent who used to work alongside the Ranger's feared-to-be-dead commander, Sgt. West (Samuel L. Jackson). As Hardy and Osborne investigate the suspicious goings-on, starting by interviewing Dunbar and Kendall—who tell largely divergent stories—they quickly discover getting to the bottom of the truth is oftentimes more difficult than expected.

The truth is so difficult to reach, in fact, that viewers walking out of "Basic" may not even remember what some of the disclosures were. Written by James Vanderbilt (2003's "Darkness Falls") with little internal logic or care for his characters, the film plays itself out like a nasty prank a friend might play on you. As the friend laughs about how sneaky they were, you likely won't find the humor in it. While tightly thought-out twists in a story can be immensely satisfying (see 1999's "The Sixth Sense" and 2001's "The Others" for prime examples), they must treat its viewers fairly. In "Basic," so many twists and corkscrews arise, only to be debunked as false, that when the final truth is revealed, you have long stopped caring. Nevermind that the immensely frustrating surprise ending makes little to no sense, a veritable slap in the face that leaves some plot threads dangling and others deemed worthless in the long run.

The actors, some of them very good, are at a loss with shallow material that does them no favors. As the head-sure, buff Tom Hardy, John Travolta (2001's "Domestic Disturbance") commands the screen and has gotten into excellent shape for the role, but his new physique is put to no worthwhile use. With a gratingly oddball accent that crosses a Georgia plantation owner with a 1920's Brooklyn moll, the usually reliable Connie Nielsen (2003's "The Hunted") is way out of her league as southern Lt. Julia Osborne. And as the allegedly gruff Sgt. West, Samuel L. Jackson (2002's "Changing Lanes")—usually the epitome of cool—slums through what is almost an elongated cameo. Meanwhile, playing some of the Rangers, Giovanni Ribisi (2000's "The Gift"), Brian Van Holt (2000's "Whipped"), and Roselyn Sanchez (2003's "Boat Trip") take turns going over-the-top.

Technically and aesthetically, "Basic" is a keeper. The cinematography by Steve Mason moodily lights the rain-soaked exteriors with memorable effectiveness, and the music score by Klaus Badelt (2003's "The Recruit") does its job. Everything else, on the other hand, is akin to a bad cable movie gone worse. Director John McTiernan, who has made a watchable film in almost a decade (aside from "Rollerball," he has also been responsible for 1999's "The 13th Warrior" and "The Thomas Crown Affair"), reaches what could only be described as final proof that whatever talent he once had as a filmmaker is now nonexistent.

In that the same event is shown over and over from different viewpoints, "Basic" has been compared to Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon," which is like comparing "Pokemon 2000" to "The Wizard of Oz" as equal family entertainment. Because none of the points-of-view turn out to be true—and the real way it happened is never even shown, only told—and the flashbacks take up at least half of the running time, the picture's entirety is deemed nothing more than pointless drivel. Look up the word, "bamboozled," in the dictionary, and for years to come one is likely to find a picture of audience members angrily exiting a theater showing "Basic."
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman