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BASIC

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt, Taye Diggs, Cristian de la Fuente, Dash Mihok, Tim Daly, Roselyn Sanchez, Harry Connick, Jr.
Director: John McTiernan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: July 8, 2003

“All we gotta do is TELL THE STORY RIGHT.”

Film ***

Basic is without a doubt one of those movies where even prior to watching it, nothing can go wrong. Here you have an endlessly talented cast, led by none other than John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, in an engaging military thriller helmed by veteran action movie director John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October). However, what surprised me the most about the movie is the excessively convoluted screenplay, which can best be described as either The Usual Suspects Join the Army or Military Memento. Not since that movie have events unfolded in a sneaky way before revealing its true self in the final scene, which to a degree, is surprising in a unique and fresh manner. You’ll either be blown away by the twists and turns, or you might give up trying to believe, but honestly, I think it would be difficult to go for the latter.

John Travolta stars as Tom Hardy, a DEA agent working undercover in Panama who’s called back into service from his former stomping grounds at a nearby military base. Hardy was previously a military interrogator, and the very best, and he is requested to investigate the sudden disappearance of a group of soldiers who vanished while performing a routine military exercise in the Panamanian jungle. Paired up with the reluctant Lt. Osborne (Connie Nielsen), Hardy wastes no time in interrogating the two soldiers who returned safely from the exercise.

This particular squad was led by the notoriously sadistic Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), whom Hardy once served under. The surviving soldiers are Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), who’s held in the interrogation room, and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), who’s being treated at a nearby hospital due to a gun shot wound. The two men claim everyone else in the unit to be dead either by gunfire or hazardous weather, since a hurricane was taking place during the events. Sgt. West, a tough as nails drill instructor, was despised by all of the soldiers in the unit, so there maybe a possibility that the sergeant may have been taken out by one of his own men. Plus, since only two out of six soldiers returned, it’s possible that the four other squad members met similar fates.

The story, which is no doubt inspired by Rashomon, which also inspired the similarly themed Courage Under Fire, delivers two points of view of what happened in the jungle that led the mysterious disappearance of West and the soldiers. Dunbar’s take on the events reveals West’s distaste for fellow soldier Pike (Taye Diggs), who was repeatedly mentally abused by the sergeant ever since basic training.  Soon, the film reveals several other possibilities the other soldier’s take on the incident, and from that point on, you have absolutely no idea how the story will unravel, truthfully that is.

In the wake of the disaster that was Rollerball, it’s great to see John McTiernan return to form with a far better piece of entertainment. While Basic doesn’t rank with the director’s absolute best, it remains a strong directorial effort. Equal credit should go to screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who’s only previous writing effort was the screenplay for Darkness Falls (if you can believe that!). Vanderbilt has woven a most intriguing, mind-bending mystery of a movie that just gets better and better with each additional twist.

Although they hardly share any screen time together, Travolta and Jackson are both dynamite. Jackson, in particular, is superbly menacing as the drill instructor from hell. So menacing in fact, that he belongs in the same family as Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. As for Travolta, you can tell by watching that he’s having a blast playing such a cocky smart ass. Hardy is a character who’s a mess outside of work, but is still active in the brain and well equipped to outsmart any deceiver.

Basic is basically a rockin’ entertaining flick that manages to pull you in for a rollercoaster ride of twists in turns for a quick 99 minutes. It requires you to think, but not too much, before putting all the necessary pieces together, thanks to sharply written, and fitfully deceiver of a screenplay. Sit back and enjoy, and remember, THEY’RE HERE…BUT THEY’RE NOT HERE.

Video ****

What a glorious looking presentation! Columbia Tri Star score big points yet again with a marvelous looking transfer. The look of the film is sharp and eye catching in the anamorphic format. John McTiernan is one director who appreciates wide angle shots, and there are plenty of such here, as are some unique camera angles. Colors are magnificent as well, ranging from the dark grays of the rain-drenched jungle sets to the interiors of the military base. Another top-notch transfer to include in CTS’ lengthy list of great looking discs.

Audio ****

Basic, although mostly a guessing thriller, does have its share of flare and action, all of which transfer stunningly well with the 5.1 mix. The range is endless, right from the opening sequence of the army helicopter flying amidst the forceful rainstorm in Panama. There are numerous suspenseful moments of shooting, which play out strongly, and dialogue is clear and clean for the entire presentation. Basically a great listen.

Features ***

It may not sound like much, but it hits the exceptional level. Included is a commentary track by John McTiernan, two featurettes; “Basic: A Director’s Design” and “Basic: A Writer’s Perspective”. Also included are filmographies and a trailer, as well as additional trailers for Tears of the Sun, Identity, Formula 51, XXX, Bad Boys II, and S.W.A.T.

Summary:

Basic is a superb whirlwind of a convoluted thriller, headlined by strong directing by John McTiernan, and a marvelous cast led by Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield themselves. Strap in for a basically explosive ride!