John Travolta in Basic

Confession: I've never been a fan of Bryan Singer's acclaimed The Usual Suspects. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary reason – if you'll permit me a vague spoiler – is that the movie spends the bulk of its running time spinning a moderately interesting crime story and then reveals that the whole thing was an elaborate lie. The big reveal doesn't deepen or add context to anything we've seen (like, say, The Sixth Sense does), it merely negates everything we've seen. The frustration I felt at the conclusion of that film was amplified tenfold by the time I reached the ending of Basic, a military drama that pulls the “everything you've been told is a lie!” stunt every fifteen minutes or so. All of these lies build to a climax so spectacularly dumb that it must be seen to be believed. Strike that: just believe me. No one should have to endure this mess. It's an insulting waste of time.

The story – if one can call it that – centers on an investigation of an intense training exercise which left a number of Army Ranger trainees dead. The question at hand is whether those deaths were accidental – and if not, who's to blame? The man in charge of the investigation is DEA Agent Tom Hardy (disappointingly not played by Tom Hardy, but by a muscle-bound John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever), who is currently being investigated himself due to allegations that he accepted a bribe. He interrogates every survivor who was involved in the incident, and ends up hearing a different story each time. Is there a truth to be found amidst the various pieces of these stories? Or is the truth way out in left field, waiting to swoop in out of nowhere despite the fact that it doesn't make any sense?

Hardy is a character we've seen a million times before: the rakish charmer who has many flaws and often disregards the rulebook but also happens to be pretty good at his job. When we're first introduced to him, we see him taking a phone call on a balcony. “Are you drinking again?” the person on the other line asks. “No, nothing like that,” he says, taking a swig from a bottle of whiskey. Watch out, everybody, this guy's a rebel! Travolta hams it up as often as possible, forcing moments of quirky playfulness that are probably meant to enliven a ho-hum part but actually end up make a potentially forgettable character an aggressively annoying one. It's a bad performance, albeit a confident one (which describes many of Travolta's performances from this era).

Back to the plot. The group of trainees are led by Master Sergeant Nathan West (a typically flamboyant Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Brown), an infamous hardass with a sadistic streak. Did his cruel behavior toward his trainees play a role in the deaths that occurred? The trainees are played by character actors like Giovanni Ribisi (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Taye Diggs (Chicago) and Dash Mihok (Silver Linings Playbook). I'd describe them to you, except their personalities change from flashback to flashback as they're being described by different people. Sometimes the alterations get a little absurd, such as a flashback in which a no-nonsense female trainee (Roselyn Sanchez, Rush Hour 2) suddenly gets depicted as a deranged sexpot. From story to story, partners change, personalities change, even skin color changes. It's increasingly complicated stuff.

I wouldn't mind the complications if there were some reward for paying attention to them, but there isn't. Honestly, you don't have to worry about keeping up with anything, because all of it gets negated by the film's climax. That could be at least partially forgiven if the individual segments were engaging on their own terms, but they aren't. The extended flashbacks take place at night in the middle of a thunderstorm, meaning we get lots of murky, dimly-lit footage of soldiers attempting to shout at each other over the sound of the rain (with exaggerated acts of violence popping up here and there for dramatic effect). How is it possible that the director of Die Hard and Predator managed to make something so visually drab and dramatically inert?

There are so many things Basic gets wrong, and one can only wonder how so many people made so many bad decisions. Who thought it was a good idea to cast the leads of Pulp Fiction and keep their characters apart the whole time? Who thought it was a good idea to ask Danish actress Connie Nielsen (Gladiator) to give her character a southern drawl? Who thought it was a good idea to end this movie with a scene which feels like it's setting up a sequel? Who thought it was a good idea to let Giovanni Ribisi borrow the voice of Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs? Who thought it was a good idea to let sound design drown out much of the dialogue in a dialogue-driven movie? These are just a few of the film's many problems, and all of those problems feel insignificant in contrast to the fact that the movie ultimately rewards our attempts to follow its knotty plotting with the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face. It's easily the worst film of McTiernan's career, and I've seen Rollerball.

Basic Poster


Rating: Zero stars (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2003