Deep in the jungle surrounding the Panama Canal, Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) is leading a group of Army Rangers on a training exercise. Their objective is simple, 3 pairs of soldiers, 60 targets, and the first pair to hit 20 targets – with live ammo – and reach the rendezvous point wins. Unfortunately, come the morning only 2 soldiers walk out of the jungle, and neither of them seem eager to reveal the whereabouts of the rest of the squad, or even if they are still alive.
Tom Hardy (John Travolta) used to be the best interrogator in the Army, before he left under mysterious circumstances. Now he works in Panama for the DEA, though he is currently enjoying a suspension while being investigated on charges of bribery. He’s called in by the Panama base commander, an old friend, to get to the bottom of things before Washington takes over and his career is ended. Hardy served on the base, and himself was trained by Sgt. West, so there is nobody more likely to get to the bottom of things. This decision doesn’t exactly please the base’s on-site investigator Captain Osborne (Connie Neilsen), now having to take a back seat in the investigation, to a man that shouldn’t even be there.
So far, everything is sounding very much like a standard paint-by-numbers Hollywood script, but Basic has a trick or two up its sleeve, that will keep you on your toes, and have you guessing right until the end. To start with the story is told in a less than conventional fashion, the narrative leaping back and forth through a fractured time line, often repeating sections from different perspectives, using a device stolen from the Kurosawa classic Rashomon, events and even faces change as the story is told through the latest version of the truth, either from a soldiers perspective or as clues take shape in minds of the investigators. Not only does it keep the story more interesting, and leave the audience unsure about what really happened but it gives a neat excuse for a number of action scenes to be squeezed out of a single event, keeping the pace of the film high where it could have descended into a slow burn thriller. It also allows the filmmakers to throw twist after twist at the audience without it ever feeling cheap or manipulative, keeping the film one step ahead of even the canniest of the audience’s ending guessers.
This all may seem rather familiar though, because despite it being a break from the norm, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the Meg Ryan film Courage Under Fire, which also took the Rashamon template and wove it around a military thriller. That’s not to say that if you have seen one then the ending of the other will be no surprise, as their plots are rather disparate, but the concept is rather less original than the filmmakers seem to believe. Also, those sucked in by the marketing hype around the great re-teaming Jackson and Travolta – their first time together since Pulp Fiction in ’96 – may be disappointed, as Sgt. West is left in the jungle before Hardy makes an appearance, and his scenes all occur in flashback, so don’t expect to see them sparking off each other as they once did. There is, however, still chemistry in the film, this time between Travolta and Neilsen, with Travolta’s natural charisma playing a large part in his Hardy persona, he tries his hardest to win over the ‘hostile and uncooperative’ Captain?, after all, what could be better than cracking the case and winning the girl?
The supporting cast is also impressively filled out, Brian Von Holt, as Dunbar – who is the primary focus of Hardy’s interrogation, is always believable, but is in danger of being typecast after appearing in this, Black Hawk Down and Windtalkers. With actors like Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan), Taye Diggs (The Way of the Gun) and even Harry Connick Jr. (Copycat) all putting in good performances the weight of the film isn’t carries on the two headliners – which may be a good thing, as they are both guilty of often letting their personalities run their roles. It’s also a welcome return to form for director John McTiernan, after the disaster that was his Rollerball remake; this may not be as good as his genre defining action movies Die Hard and Predator, it’s certainly a long way from The Last Action Hero.
Basic is a very enjoyable thriller which, although full of twists, feels more like it’s leading you toward the conclusion, rather than trying to escape from you, and the higher than average action content means this is one twist based movie you can enjoy again once the secrets have been revealed. As with any plot his tumultuous there are some slight holes in the logic that you could pick apart afterwards, but it’s enjoyable enough that you probably won’t feel the need to.
There’s hardly a scene in Basic that doesn’t occur at night, and thankfully the excellent transfer is perfectly balanced to allow the blacks to stay black without obscuring the details. Watching soldiers trudge trough a jungle at night, amidst a hurricane, could all too easily have been unwatchable, but it shines here. On the downside the clarity allows the bluescreen work of the initial helicopter flight into the jungle to be rather too clear, with it being obvious that the actors had been filmed on a soundstage, but that is clearly a fault of the process and not the transfer itself – which is first rate.
Basic is a fantastic film for the Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment, the hurricane alone making better use of both surrounds and sub than many films do in their entirety. On top of which there are gunfights and helicopter flights which will really test the range of your speakers, the sound field expansive and exciting, it’s hard to imagine better treatment of the material.
Audio Commentary from Director John McTiernan
The problem with John McTiernan, as a commentator, is he has a very low, almost monotone voice, which seems to make even the most interesting anecdotes sound rather dull. This isn’t helped by his tendency to fill his commentary with drawn out silences – he’s certainly the kind of person that would work far better with a partner, to inspire his comments more than anything else. At the start of the film, when Samuel L. Jackson appears, all McTiernan can find to comment on is his lack of anything to say, you would have thought Mr. Jackson could inspire some comment, and this sets the tone for the rest of the track. It’ll take a committed fan of the film to make it through the track without their eyelids drooping, and even then it isn’t a rewarding experience.
A Writer’s Perspective
Here the film’s writer James Vanderbilt talks about his inspirations and writing processes, it’s good to hear a writer talk about his work, but more interesting is the discussion of collaborative processes between himself, the producers and the director. Many writers can be rather precious about their scripts, but he seems more than willing to accept that anything he has written an be changed at a moments notices. McTiernan sat down with him very early and told him the ending of the film needed to be changed, as the original was far to dark for a blockbuster. They then came up with the existing ending first, and worked their way backwards through the film, inserting twists and clues through the script until they got their new ending to mesh. It’s not often you get to hear these aspects discussed, and it makes for interesting listening.
Director’s Design Featurette
Starting out amusingly with a selection of contradictory interview clips about the film and what it really is - military drama, romance, action movie – all in keeping with the confusing nature of the film itself, this quickly reverts back to a rather standard promotional piece. While there are smatterings of behind the scenes footage and occasionally candid remarks, it’s mostly the obligatory congratulatory back-slapping, though it is interesting to get McTiernan’s perspective on the points raised in the writer’s perspective featurette.
Trailer, TV and Radio Spots
The standard package of promotional fluff, there are advertising campaigns that are interesting to watch, cunning teaser trailers and varied trailers from different territories. This is not one of those. This selection is simply a standard trailer and a selection of abridged versions for different formats.
Basic was a pleasingly cunning thriller, containing some great action, solid performances, a fast pace, and a genuinely surprising ending. The features are somewhat of a disappointment, as on the page most sounded more interesting than they turned out to be, but the film can stand repeat viewings well enough to make this a reasonable purchase, if not, certainly worth a rental.