Basic (2003) * 1/2
Directed by John McTiernan. Written by James Vanderbilt. Photography, Steve Mason. Editing. George Folsey Jr. Production design, Dennis Bradford. Music Klaus Badelt. Produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnie Messer, Mr. Vanderbilt and Michael Tadross. Cast: John Travolta (Hardy), Connie Nielsen (Julia Osborne), Samuel L. Jackson (Nathan West), Giovanni Ribisi (Levi Kendall), Brian Van Holt (Raymond Dunbar), Taye Diggs (Pike), Cristián de la Fuente (Castro), Dash Mihok (Mueller), Tim Daly (Bill Styles), Roselyn Sanchez (Nunez) and Harry Connick Jr. (Pete Vilmer). A Columbia release. 95 minutes. R.
"Basic" is the eleventh movie directed by John McTiernan ("Nomads," "Predator," "Die Hard," The Hunt for Red October," "Medicine Man," "The Last Action Hero," "Die Hard, with a Vengeance," "The Thirteenth Warrior," "The Thomas Crown Affair" remake, "Rollerball "(remake.) He is, to put it mildly, a most visually-oriented action-film maker. And, according to some of my friends and family who know him well, a fine connoisseur of wines.
The writer of "Basic" is a 1999 graduate of the University of Southern California's Film School.
The main feature of this feature: it leaves you bothered and bewildered but not bewitched. Starting with its title. What does it mean? Perhaps the Basic Training of U.S. Army Rangers under Sergeant Samuel L. Jackson, the toughest, demanding-est, most hated Sarge in movies. The merciless training opens the film, then, for its duration, heavy, non-stop rain, punctuates it (circa 99% of the movie) along with the other main location, an U.S.Army base
McTiernan's "Predator" was filmed in Mexican jungles. This time it is a Panamanian jungle. With obvious, blatant symbolism, the precise time of the action begins on El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. the start of November, here in the year 1999, just weeks before the U.S.A pulled out of Panama. (As for the entire film, there's a scarcity of orientation, so that it is up to the viewer to figure things out.)
Of the jungle's seven Rangers, five, including the Sergeant, are killed one by one (don't ask how and why) two survive and resurface (how?) in the base's hospital. There's a mystery somewhere (don't ask.) John Travolta, once a super-Ranger, now a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) operative, happens to be in the neighborhood, is famous for his interrogating abilities and gets called in to help. His sidekick (in the tradition of cop-flicks clichés) is beautiful Lieutenant Connie Nielsen. A murky love-hate, now antagonistic, now friendly rapport surfaces. How original!
With a wealth of zig-zags and other clichés, a burden of complicated, convoluted, unlikely, incredible, arbitrary, clear-as-mud, confusing, incomprehensible "stuff," the story proceeds -a verb that is an euphemism in a quagmire that may or may not relate to drug traffic.
Yes, there is twist, a final surprise. It too is so unconvincingly slapdash that it only adds insult to injury. The sole, mild saving grace of this yarn is that Travolta is pretty good.
Is this a catastrophic mess? Yes. Who bears the responsibility? The idiot script. The photography, by a talented Australian, is impressive,, but by itself cannot rescue the movie. It seems to me that director McTiernan, enamored (and good) as he is with visuals, concentrated on them and, intelligent though he is, uncritically accepted an awful, sort of "Rashomon"-ish scenario that should have been re-worked from A to Z.