Director : John McTiernan
Screenplay : James Vanderbilt
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : John Travolta (Tom Hardy), Connie Nielsen (Julia Osborne), Samuel L. Jackson (Sgt. Nathan West), Timothy Daly (Col. Bill Styles), Giovanni Ribisi (Levi Kendall), Brian Van Holt (Raymond Dunbar), Taye Diggs (Pike), Dash Mihok (Mueller), Cristián de la Fuente (Castro), Roselyn Sanchez (Nunez), Harry Connick Jr. (Pete Vilmer)
In a scene near the beginning of Basic, John Travolta, who plays Tom Hardy, an ex-Army-Ranger-turned-DEA-agent, is speaking with Col. Bill Styles (Timothy Daly), the commander of an Army base in Panama. Hardy has been brought in by Styles because of his expert interrogation skills. An Army Ranger live-fire exercise deep in the jungle has gone terribly wrong and the only survivors aren’t talking about what happened. The lead investigator should be the base’s head of military police, Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), but Styles doesn’t think she’s up for the job (he cites her inexperience, but it is clearly a decision based on gender). The camera follows Hardy and Styles while they discuss the situation, but at a crucial moment, the camera inexplicably moves into a long shot so that we cannot hear what they are saying.
Clearly, something very important is being discussed here, and it’s plainly obvious that whatever it is will come into play later. Withholding vital information is key to constructing any good mystery story, but the execution here is so awkward and obvious that it jars us out of the story and reminds us that screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls) and director John McTiernan (Rollerball) are jerking our chains, which is never a good thing in such situations. There is pleasure in being tricked and turned around by a good story, but not if you can sense the presence of the puppet master.
The inherent flaw here is that the scene could have been constructed in a way that kept the information secret, but wasn’t so obvious about it. The key is realizing that Travolta’s character is not the protagonist, but rather it is Nielsen’s Capt. Osborne. She is really the film’s central character, yet because this is a military whodunit, all the action revolves around the male characters and Nielsen is mostly relegated to the sideline. Had the film been centered around her subjectivity, rather than Travolta’s, the filmmakers could have more easily withheld the vital information in this particular scene, but done so subtlety by aligning the audience with Osborne.
Of course, this is but one of many flaws in Basic, which wants to be an updated version of Rashomon without any of the moral or epistemological ambiguity. In fact, the film is probably best understood as the apotheosis of a recent trend in Hollywood filmmaking that arguably began in the early 1990s when Quentin Tarantino resurrected the idea of narrative play and nonlinear timelines as a way of jazzing up overworked genre films. That idea has since been manhandled and stretched like Silly Putty until it’s so thin and unwieldy that it can barely sustain a coherent narrative. Basic takes the idea of conflicting narratives and works it to the nth degree, employing so many false conclusions and last-minute twist endings that the final revelation is not so much shocking as it is annoying—do we have to sit through any more revelations, or is this finally it?
Director John McTiernan, who was once one of the best action directors in Hollywood (his Predator and Die Hard are still two of the most thoroughly enjoyable action flicks available), drenches the story in incessant rainfall and hurricane winds that I guess represent the slippery slope of truth and lies. Unfortunately, like most Hollywood films, Basic insists on trying to answer all the questions it asks (although not always successfully), thus undermining any notion of exploring the impossibility of “Truth” with a capital T (ala Memento) and underscoring the fact that the twists serve no purpose other than their own self-proclaimed cleverness.
Lost somewhere amid all the narrative pitfalls and double-takes are quite a few good actors, including Samuel L. Jackson as is-he-or-isn’t-he-cruel-and-insane Sgt. Nathan West who is murdered at the hands of his own platoon during a training exercise and Giovanni Ribisi as Levi Kendall, an important general’s gay son whose involvement in West’s murder is one the story’s lynchpins. There are also conflicting tales of drug-running, overworked grunts getting revenge, an AWOL group of former commandos running rampant through Colombia, and other assorted backstabbings and double-crosses, but there’s so much of it that it’s hard to feel that any of it matters, especially when the film is so blind it doesn’t even recognize who the true protagonist really is.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick