During a routine training exercise, a ruthless army sergeant named West (Samuel L. Jackson) has gone missing, and some of the soldiers under his command (including Taye Diggs, Roselyn Sanchez and Giovanni Ribisi) have turned up dead. The government calls in Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a DEA agent with a gift for interrogation, to question the two remaining survivors. Along with his shadow officer (Connie Nielsen, "One Hour Photo"), Hardy dives into the thick black muck of dishonor, deceit and greed to find out just what happened in the Panamanian jungle to a commanding officer that everyone seemed to loathe with equal passion.
Director John McTiernan comes to "Basic" (IMDb listing) after taking a flat-out beating over his last picture, the doomed "Rollerball." I didn't have the venom for the roller derby remake that others did, but I recognized it was an off day for the normally gangbusters director ("Die Hard, "The Thomas Crown Affair"). "Basic " is troubling to me because it confirms that McTiernan might be losing his grip on quality, and that without a water-tight script soon, he could become another casualty in the Hollywood war.
"Basic" is an exercise in plot twists and extravagant, undeserved coincidences. It has the shape of a thriller, but it never thrills. It also has the guise of a mystery, but it's a film that would require a long sit-down with the screenwriter (James Vanderbilt, "Darkness Falls") to fully understand. Maybe the film does make sense in the final reckoning (it's told in a sort of "Rashomon" style, so illogic can be easily sidestepped if it crops up), but it's also a movie that isn't all that interesting to begin with, thus negating any real desire to sort it out. Filled with a cast that's always reliable, and guided by a director with a fantastic track record, "Basic" amazes with its incompetence and its immobility. This is a picture that should've been great, but in the end, it's a major letdown.
A crucial mistake is made by McTiernan in setting up the characters involved in the central incident. These are six individuals that the audience is supposed to tail for the entire picture, yet the introductions are handled as if they don't matter. The script is filled with requests like "What happened to Dunbar?," "Did Nunez fire the weapon?," and "Bring me Pike!" without ever making it concrete who is who. "Basic" is a film shot mainly in the dark and the rain, so the confusion over character names is compounded by the fact that we can't ever see them either. The plot's twists and turns hinge on becoming comfortable with names and faces, and without this element working, "Basic" becomes increasingly tiresome because, simply, the audience is never allowed to sit back and take in the sights without enormous confusion.
Performance-wise, McTiernan allows John Travolta free reign to bring his character to life, and his performance remains one of the few bright spots in the film. Travolta looks like he's having fun, which the same cannot be said of the rest of the cast. Young actor Giovanni Ribisi gets away with murder as a young, gay soldier who sounds like Lorne Michaels with a head cold. McTiernan encourages Ribisi to overact wildly, taking away crucial tension and believability from the scenes he appears in. Connie Nielsen has bigger problems in her supporting role. It's not that her performance is bad. In fact, she's great here as Hardy's sidekick, endlessly searching for her own answers to the problem. The role shows real promise for Nielsen, who has had trouble matching her talents to the roles offered her recently ("The Hunted"). However, her character is conceived as southern, for no real reason at all, and Nielsen continually weaves in and out of her accent to the point of distraction. How this stayed in the film, right under McTiernan's watchful eye no less, is beyond me. It suggests that maybe, in the final mix of things, the director gave up on his own picture? I wouldn't blame him.
Filmfodder Grade: D