*½/**** Image B Sound A Extras B-
starring John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Van Holt
screenplay by James Vanderbilt
directed by John McTiernan
by Walter Chaw It occurred to me about midway through Basic that director John McTiernan, having nowhere to go but up after last year's amusingly noxious Rollerball, was taking a page from the Michael Bay book of filmmaking before realizing that Bay had the McTiernan school (the McTiernan of Die Hard and Predator) to thank for the whole of his austere career. The Hollywood shooting match is an incestual Moebius strip, it seems, and for who was once the best action director in the United States to find himself a hollow shade of not only his past glory, but also Bay, is depressing beyond words. Which is not to say that Basic doesn't start out extremely well: For a full minute, the picture provides a brief history of the French attempt at digging a canal in Panama in the 1880s scored to Bizet's Carmen; the problem is that by the end of Basic, the only justification for the Carmen cue is that it's also packed to the gills with bull.
DEA agent and ex-Ranger Tom Hardy (John Travolta) is that hoary action-movie standby: the alcoholic detective with a sordid past called in to solve one last case by the last man on the force who has any faith in him. On the night of a hurricane during which five members of a seven member Ranger training exercise disappear in the Panamanian jungle, Hardy is hailed by his ex-boss, Chief Warrant Officer Wilmer (Timothy Daly), to interrogate the two surviving rangers: moody Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and tortured homosexual Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi, channelling Ted Levine). Of chief concern is missing Drill Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson, blue--and blue-in-the-face--again) who, it seems, everyone wanted to kill. Along for the ride is the base's investigating officer, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), who apparently learned English in Sweden from an expatriate hillbilly.
Using a series of false flashbacks (a little like Rashomon, but mostly not) and a bunch of misleading information, Basic makes it impossible to decipher its central mystery by any means logical or intuitive (other than by that reliable big-budget thriller dictum that if it's the stupidest conclusion it must be right). Basic is a cynical and manipulative whodunit, so labyrinthine and self-defeating that it appears by the end that the filmmakers have lost track of what's happening and have the Osborne character identify another character as though Osborne had been viewing, somehow, the false flashbacks along with the audience (and supposing this were the case, another of the film's major twists would have been defeated). Proving that his prosaic screenplay for Darkness Falls was no fluke, screenwriter James Vanderbilt (next up: The Rock's new movie!) demonstrates a decent ear for dialogue while demonstrating almost no ability to put together the simplest of narratives much less the freaked-out lollapalooza of Basic.
Worse, Vanderbilt seems to be referring to author Thomas Hardy in the naming of Travolta's character (and Barbarino's recent sour grapes concerning his passing over Chicago doesn't say all that much for the film he was shooting instead), pushing the connection by tying Hardy's hallmarks of personal archetype and use of forces of nature as allegory into what is essentially a stupid rip-off of any stupid David Mamet film. McTiernan follows suit with the sort of panicked direction that is the purvey of directors who don't know how they used to do it but ardently wish that they did, while Travolta as another paunchy military man doesn't so much evoke his performances in The General's Daughter or Broken Arrow as his Rastafarian security chief from Battlefield Earth.
Handily outsmarting itself while being extraordinarily stupid, the only saving grace of Basic is that, bucking current trends, it doesn't rape an actual historical event for relevancy, nor is it particularly pretentious. What it attempts is no more offensive than trying to glom together A Few Good Men with The Usual Suspects while returning McTiernan to the jungle setting of his Predator and reuniting the two stars of Pulp Fiction, neither of whom frankly has been in a film nearly as good as that in the nine years since. The bad news is that Basic is essentially a prospective comeback picture for the principals--a glossy prestige piece that seems like a lot of other films and doesn't make any kind of sense and therefore must be good. The good news is that at 99 minutes, it's really short. Originally published: March 28, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Basic comes to you on DVD in a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that improves as the film progresses. For the first third or so, the generally soft image has dismal contrast and exhibits mild banding in out-of-focus areas, but deeper blacks eventually start to seep through and even saturation receives a boost. Typical of director John McTiernan's work, Basic has a top-flight soundmix that's well presented here in Dolby Digital 5.1, though the most powerful moment for your receiver would have to be the tidal-wave Intermedia logo that precedes the film. Extras include a sleepy McTiernan commentary track that's best when it pertains to the post-production process; McTiernan is the rare director with favourable things to say about the practice of test-screening, which he used fervently in the case of Basic to gauge the integrity (read: coherence) of its myriad convolutions.
Despite its title, McTiernan is not the focal point of "Basic: A Director's Design" (23 mins.), a making-of that begins cleverly enough by juxtaposing interviewee soundbites in direct contradiction, though that grows old almost as fast as the plot synopsis and adulations for the cast that constitute the bulk of this featurette. "Basic Ingredients: A Writer's Perspective" (17 mins.) gets a bit embarrassing when screenwriter James Vanderbilt reads passages of dialogue aloud from his script (I mean, why is he doing that?), but his specific discussion of the changes imposed on the story by McTiernan is illuminating, and Basic's deleted material (almost all of it involving the backstory of Connie Nielsen's character) is incorporated into the piece. Cast/crew filmographies plus trailers for Basic, Tears of the Sun, Identity, xXx, Formula 51, Bad Boys II, and S.W.A.T. round out the Columbia TriStar disc. Originally published: June 13, 2003.