Move over "Dreamcatcher." You tried to be the most convoluted
picture of 2003, but already you've bitten the dust. Hello, "Basic,"
whose plot is anything but. A picture almost as enigmatic as
Alain Resnais's terminally puzzling 1961 feature "Last Year at
Marienbad," begins sharply, showing its good intentions, but as
John McTiernan moves to develop the plot, he's done in by James
Vanderbilt's script one which looks as though it were written by a
committee of eight. "Basic," which comes across ultimately like
something out of Agatha Christie "One of you in this room is
guilty and I'm going to tell you who" is so baffling throughout that
by the conclusion we wonder how a story with a superficial
premise should have pushed our confusion buttons yet offered so
little in the way of a satisfactory resolution.
As though deliberately trying to muffle scripter Vanderbilt's
dialogue, McTiernan keeps the hurricane-strength rain pouring
down and the music intrusive on the part of the story that takes
place in Panama, a country which plays host to a group of rough-
tough trainees for the American Ranger program. Under the
hostile and gritty command of Sergeant West (Samuel L.
Jackson) whom everyone hates and has a right to do so given the
way he works the men carrying the 80-pound packs, a group of
uniformed men who are not clearly individualized throughout the
Panama scenes grimly accept the orders of the officer. When the
men do not appear at a point of pickup, Commander Styles (Tim
Daly) prowls about in his chopper to locate them when suddenly
he witnesses Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) carrying a wounded man,
Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), followed by an exchange of gunfire
among the trainees resulting in more than one death.
"Basic" proceeds in Rashomon fashion as first the attractive but
seemingly constipated Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) tries
to get information from Dunbar and is forced at the suspect's
request to call in a former ranger, Hardy (John Travolta), now a
DEA agent being investigated for bribe-taking, who gets Dunbar to
start talking but whose story does not tally with that of another
survivor, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi).
There is little of the "Caine Mutiny Court Martial" motif in the
story. Rather "Basic" is a mystery which has both Hardy and
Osborne throwing metaphoric daggers at each other while, while
Hardy alternates between putting the make on the pretty officer
and finding out which of the surviving recruits is telling the truth.
The film is well acted by people who are bogged down in a tale
that seems to be all about developing and developing and
developing with no apparent thrust toward reaching a conclusion.
Since this is not a satiric take at the U.S. armed forces (go to
"Buffalo Soldiers" for that), not a suspenseful courtroom escape
like "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," we suspect by midpoint that
director John McTiernan and writer James Vanderbilt are satisfied
with nothing more than pulling our audience chains while providing
a startling conclusion that leaves too many question unanswered.
Copyright © 2003 Harvey Karten