Basic (2003) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: Rated R for violence and language      
Running Time: 98 min.

Cast: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Timothy Daly, Giovanni Ribisi
Director:  John McTiernan
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt

Review published April 2, 2003

Basic is little more than a "mind f*ck" movie, created to do little more than to keep you mesmerized with twists and turns throughout the serpentine plot. For the most part, it does succeed by throwing you for a loop with a nifty, albeit predictable, twist ending, but your level of satisfaction will vary depending on whether you've given up trying to figure anything out altogether. John McTiernan attempts to give us another high-quality thriller, a la The Usual Suspects and Memento, but we're clearly in derivative territory here, leaving you with the feeling that the title of the film is very apt indeed.

John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth) plays DEA agent Tom Hardy, a former Army Ranger under investigation fro bribery himself, called back to the base by an old friend to do an unofficial investigation of his former squad leader, Colonel West (Jackson, xXx), during a training expedition in the jungles of Panama. Of the special forces trainees, only two have come back alive, and with West being especially hated by his men, there's lots of potential developments which may have emerged to cause a catastrophe. Hardy, along with assigned assistant Capt. Julia Osborne (Nielsen, The Hunted), try to crack these tough nuts to spill their guts, but each is reluctant to say much of anything. When they do eventually begin to talk, their stories are markedly inconsistent, leading Hardy and Osborne with the feeling that something deeper went on beneath the surface.

Basic reunites a favorite duo of Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, previously seen together in Pulp Fiction, and the performances of both actors are the primary reason why Basic works when it does. Director McTiernan is no stranger to thrillers, having directed such notable entries as Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, and coming off of the dismal remake of Rollerball, he puts his all into crafted an engaging esoteric thriller. Perhaps he put in too much, as the downfall of Basic comes from being too ambitious, contorting itself until it becomes too difficult to follow for first time viewers, and not really entertaining enough to merit a second viewing. It does keep your interest, however, and even if it becomes difficult to understand what's going on at all times, the performances and competent direction keep things moving briskly.

Basic is nothing really to go out of your way for, as it isn't especially good, but it isn't so bad that fans of the stars or military thrillers should avoid it. It's more like a Chinese puzzle box which requires long hours and diligence to solve, but when the box finally opens, frustrates us to discover it was empty all along.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo