review by Cynthia
Fuchs, 28 March 2003
its title suggests, John McTiernan's new action-thriller, Basic
is not very new. Written by James Vanderbilt (responsible for the
equally poorly plotted Darkness Falls), the film offers up a
standard cat-and-mouse intrigue, wherein an investigator endeavors
to solve a crime, and in the process uncovers a web of corruption so
profound that it shakes her worldview. The investigator here, Lt.
Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), must find her way through multiple
stories unfolding in separate flashbacks, intersecting and
diverging, until you've either figured out exactly who the bad guys
are or dozed off.
is introduced via her Southernish voiceover, as she narrates a brief
history of the Panama Canal, near where she's currently (1999)
stationed at Fort Clayton. Noting the relationships among France's
initial efforts to build it, the devastating effects of malaria on
these efforts, the U.S. purchase of French rights and properties in
1904, and the money made off treatment of malaria, she concludes,
"This place has always had a special way of dealing with both
profit and death."
okay. Be on the lookout for dishonesty, loss of life, and greed in
comes the rain, and with it, the dramatic first appearance of
hard-drinking DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta), banging around in
his tropical hotel room, apparently depressed and off the wagon,
presently suspended after being accused of accepting a bribe. Just
when things look their bleakest (rain, booze, etc.), Hardy's old
buddy Styles (Timothy Daly), who now commands the U.S. base in
Panama, calls him in for a job that only he can do. This
would be the interrogation of a Ranger named Dunbar (Brian Van Holt)
concerning a training exercise gone terribly wrong.
has emerged from this apparent disaster in the Panamanian jungle
carrying fellow Ranger Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) on his shoulder.
Now, the wounded Kendall lies unconscious in a hospital bed and
Dunbar refuses to talk. All other members of their team appear to be
missing, including the notoriously ferocious Sgt. West (yet another
over-the-top performance by Samuel L. Jackson). As Hardy reveals to
Dunbar, he was once trained by West, before he left the military,
and so he sympathizes with any rage he might feel: West, all agree,
is (or was) a terrible person, a fact demonstrated across a series
of ostensibly competing flashbacks: in every one, he mercilessly
abuses Pike (Taye Diggs).
if he does have this bit of military background, civilian Hardy's
"completely unorthodox" arrival ruffles Osborne's
by-the-book feathers, because she's supposed to be in charge of the
interrogation. Styles says, essentially, too bad, he needs his man,
because, he insists, "There's nobody better in a room."
(Read this as you will.) His reputation thus preceding him, Hardy
wastes no time messing with Osborne, getting her to admit right off
that she's feeling "hostile and uncooperative." As if to
give her a good reason to feel that way, he leans in close and,
claiming he's still a little drunk, declares that he prefers to
"skip over the witty banter and move straight into coming on to
you." To Osborne's credit, she looks somewhat repulsed by this
movie proceeds to line up an assortment of possibilities: Pike
fragged the Sarge, or Kendall did, or maybe Dunbar, or jeez, Nuñez
(Roselyn Sanchez) looks angry too, as do durable Mueller (Dash Mihok)
and dour Castro (Cristián de la Feunte). During flashbacks narrated
by Dunbar and then Kendall (who usefully regains consciousness, and
not a little attitude), thunder crashes, lightning flashes, and
characters loom in their frames, their faces wet and shiny, their
ponchos dark and slick, their gear silhouetted so they look like
team regroups, seeking shelter from the hurricane that's taken down
their helicopter, at a shack on the training ground, where they
confront one another, cast aspersions, and take sides. They tell
each other stories, which lead to flashbacks within the flashbacks.
None of the stories jibes exactly -- West was hit with a grenade, or
he was shot and then grenaded. Or then again, maybe he showed up
back at the shack, and took out his betrayers. Pike was tied up, or
he wasn't. Mueller went crazy, or he didn't. Someone was trading
drugs, or he wasn't. Nuñez took off her jacket, or she didn't.
Everyone was killed, or they weren't.
these many twists and turns suggest, Osborne and Hardy are rather up
against a nest of deception. Throughout their investigation, they're
confronted with the idea that, as monumentally self-pitying Kendall
puts it, there are "degrees of truth." And it's up to the
investigators to ferret out which degree is more useful than
another. Not more truthful, just more useful. And in this dancing
about, McTiernan reveals his continuing appreciation of the fun and
nuance of big movie lies, much as he did back when he made the
genre-jolters Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988). But
the pace is slowed here, and the commentary more mundane (the U.S.
government is run by liars, the military is gung-ho, and oh yes,
also full of liars, but their cause is just).
poor Osborne. The exemplary outsider, even as she's trying to figure
out how to read the Rangers' stories, she's also dealing with her
on-again, off-again lover, Pete (Harry Connick Jr., quite evidently
in Copycat mode, as opposed to Will & Grace mode),
a doctor down at the hospital where they interview Kendall.
Eventually, Basic breaks down into obviously and odiously
gendered and raced "sides," never a good sign for a movie
purporting to examine ambiguity. By the time she's running through a
Day of the Dead Festival to track her final suspect, you know, even
if she doesn't, that she's in the wrong movie altogether. (How many
times have you seen this signifier for the exotic otherness of the
degrees of truths are, at first glance, less ambiguous than those of
the men, perhaps because she is a woman trying to survive in a world
where men make all the rules, again and again. She's clearly
finished with Pete's shenanigans. She doesn't appreciate getting
jerked around by Hardy. And she definitely resents Styles' tedious
disrespect. Still, the film's ostensible surprises -- end runs
around seeming plot setups or characterizations -- are cheats more
than they're asking you to rethink your reading abilities, or your
understanding of how narrative works. Basic is as generic as
Samuel L. Jackson
Harry Connick Jr.
Cristián de la Fuente
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult