The most important three things in a movie are the ending, the ending and the ending. You can forgive a whole lot of flaws in a flick if at its conclusion you can say, “Yeah, man, ultimately, that movie was satisfying.” But when Basic ends, you just mumble, “Huh?”
It starts out exciting enough. Sgt. Nathan West, a detested U.S Army Ranger (Samuel L. Jackson, Changing Lanes) is killed, along with six other soldiers, on a merciless training mission during a hurricane in the Panama jungle. Only two men survive. Assigned to interrogate them is female lieutenant Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen, The Hunted). Though gorgeous, tough and smart, she can’t make the men talk. So the base commander brings in former Ranger and now-down-on-his-luck DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta).
Travolta is so beefed up for this role, he looks like a beer keg with biceps, particularly so in his emergence from the shower with a towel draped languorously over his privates. (One of those flaws you forgive.) Later on, of course, there’s the requisite martial arts fight between Hardy and Osborne, another flaw worth forgiving because you were expecting this cliche so much you’d probably be annoyed if it weren’t there.
The rest of the movie’s flaws aren’t so obvious. They sneak up on you, like the steps in a telemarketer’s pitch. You know you’re being had, but you don’t have a moment to figure out why.
At the outset of the movie, there are so many conflicting stories you think: Oh, boy this is gonna be another The Usual Suspects –ain’t we lucky! But a couple plot twists later, and your thinking’s changed: Oh dear, they’re trying to do a Rashomon rip-off, and it ain’t going so hot.
Still, you’re not completely upset at this point — you’re enjoying the wonderful cinematography by Steve Mason (who shot the charming Strictly Ballroom, the first New Zealand movie by Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann). You’re curious about Giovanni Ribisi (Gone in Sixty Seconds) and his over-the-top portrayal of a young homosexual soldier. And you’re feeling intellectually challenged with all the different views of The Truth that get revealed as Hardy and Osborne supposedly uncover one layer of deception after another.
But then about an hour into the thing, after too many incidents of seeing is disbelieving, you begin to suspect that there really isn’t a legitimate precedent for this movie. You start to discern that maybe Basic is just a legacy-less mushy-mush of plot twists — the result, probably, of the two cents’ worth each foisted by the movie’s 14 producers on the hapless director (John McTiernan, Die Hard) and young screenwriter (James Vanderbilt Darkness Falls). You overhear the gentlemen sitting in the row behind you say, “Honey, the popcorn’s all gone. There’s just kernels left.” And you realize he’s just given an accurate review of the movie.
Basic is one of those movies for which you can’t fully explain your opinion, because to do so you’d have to reveal the ending. I don’t want to ruin things for those folks who are bound and determined to spend their hard-earned money on seeing the film.
I’m such a Travolta fan that I’d probably still go see Basic even after reading a review like this one. Sure, Johnny Boy’s laid a lot of bombs lately, including three of my all-time worst movies: the stupid Battleship Earth, the sleazy Lucky Numbers and the moronically violent Swordfish. But he also starred in some of my favorites: with Nicholas Cage in 1997′s brilliant Face/Off; as the man touched by greatness in the sweet Phenomenon; and let’s not forget his return to favor nine years ago with Pulp Fiction, also starring his sidekick in Basic, Samuel L. Jackson.
Actors aren’t supposed to be script analysts; they’re supposed to act, and Travolta does a good job in the role he was given in Basic. You can’t blame him entirely for this film being a dud. Not entirely.