10 PRINT 'Basic is rubbish'
20 GOTO 10

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 22 Jun 2003 by Scott Morris
Basic image

When apportioning blame to this film, and there's really not anything much to praise, it has to be laid pretty much at the writer. Since The Usual Suspects impressed pretty much everyone with a tight script and a twist ending that also had the benefit of making sense it's been ripped off by countless imitators. Unfortunately they seem to copy it in a very American way, with bigger twists and more of them, regardless of whether or not it's realistic. Meet James Vanderbilt who based on the evidence of his writing skills is eleven years old. If more evidence for the prosecution is required, he wrote Darkness Falls.

If I were a gambling man, I'd bet that Vanderbilge started writing a little murder mystery after watching Platoon, and may well have had a reasonable story. Unfortunately it only covered about forty minutes of screentime. Ah, thought Vanderbollockchop, that's not long enough at all, but I've no idea what else to do with it. After a few seconds of strenuous deliberation he decided 'Fuck it, I'll just have the characters re-tell the same story in slightly different ways after revealing a dumb twist'. And lo, so it was written. This left Vanderbloodyawful with a problem of when to stop with this and still have a coherent ending. After a few seconds of strenuous deliberation he decided 'Fuck it, I'll just put in an even dumber twist and claim it's a visionary work of genius'. And lo, so it was written.

Now happy with his script all neatly written in blue crayon he took his script to Sony Pictures, who in any sane world would have laughed at it and forced little Jimmy to eat his deranged rantings. But, this is Hollywood, so what they actually did was snap it up and attach a decent director and number of talented actors to it. And John Travolta.

Director John McTiernan clearly liked the Cambodian jungle setting as it allowed him to return to his Predator roots. He's a good director, and earned himself an exemption from criticism with Predator, Die Hard and Die Hard With A Vengeance. Let's choose to overlook the remake of Rollerball. It's a pity the bulk of this takes place in interrogation rooms and hospitals, as it doesn't allow for many of the action sequences he's built his stock on. What few there are the only time a bland and uninteresting movie shows any signs of life at all.

Basic image

In a nutshell, a U.S. Army Ranger training mission lead by Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) goes pear-shaped and only two of the expedition make it back alive, Levi Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Pike (Brian Van Holt). Unbelievably, even that simple summing up the basic facts established from the outset of the film contains a spoiler which is some indication of how ludicrously over plotted this film ends up. Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) is assigned to investigate what happens, but her C.O. Col. Bill Styles (Timothy Daly) calls in disgraced ex-Ranger Tom Hardy (Travolta) to help out, much to her consternation.

For what it's worth, I almost liked Nielsen's character, even if it does seem to have been written with the strong empowered spunky female genotype firmly in mind. Osborne is about the only properly thought out and motivated character in this mess, even if they can't resist going with the 'mismatched partners disagreeing over methods then coming to an understanding' romance subplot that's been seen in about every single film ever made. Travolta does his usual 'Oh, I'm so cool' anti-hero act that he's been repeating verbatim since Pulp Fiction, and he's not doing it much worse than in anything else. It's a pity his character is hamstrung with lines that are so far removed from wit that he ends up sounding like an arsehole.

One of the more insignificant flaws in this tripe is the bizarre and fluctuating accents sported by Nielsen and the normally dependable Ribisi, bouncing around between overblown Southern drawls and more sensible modes of speech. The cinematography disappoints hugely too, the jungles of Cambodia looking not dissimilar to your average garden centre. The score tends to be either inaudible, drowned out by the on-screen action or entirely the opposite, as though the soundtrack was mixed by a chimp randomly sliding faders willy-nilly.

There's a great array of talent in this film, and it's a shame they've wasted their time on this festival of ineptitude. Taye Diggs, Samuel L. Jackson, Timothy Daly, Giovanni Ribisi; all good actors, all wasted in awful, underwritten roles. Travolta can have a certain charm to his performances but not here, and he's certainly not talented or compelling enough to exist in this vacuum of script. Oh yeah, this film has Harry Connick Jr. in it if you need any more damning evidence of it's degree of suckitude.

According to Basic, this it what happens when you lie. It's about as accurate as Pinocchio.

It throws in so many different versions of whodunnit that by the time the truth is finally revealed I absolutely guarantee that no-one will care, and whereas the ending of The Usual Suspects will likely be remembered as one of the finest cinematic reveals ever committed to film I suspect the ending of Basic won't even remain committed to the audience's memory for more than a few hours. To protect what little enjoyment you might glean, and for the sake of my mental health I'll skip over the details of the plot, suffice to say that it contains plot swerves that are ludicrous and entirely divorced from believability. There's no intelligence in the writing, no wit, no sparkle, no cohesion, no sense. And by the end of the film, no point.

This film has one of the least satisfying endings in modern cinema, one so annoying it even surpasses that of The Life Of David Gale. Nonsensical and irritating from start to finish, it's a good idea to avoid this film completely. It's a mark of its ineptitude that it contains two actors that have already established a great chemistry previously (Travolta and Jackson on Pulp Fiction) and only has one scene with the duo in it together. This film isn't so much a wasted opportunity as a waste of film, time, effort and money.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.

John McTiernan
Cast list:
John Travolta (Tom Hardy)
Connie Nielsen (Lt. Julia Osborne)
Samuel L. Jackson (Sgt. Nathan West)
Timothy Daly (Col. Bill Styles)
Giovanni Ribisi (Levi Kendall)
Brian Van Holt (Pike)
Taye Diggs (Raymond Dunbar)
Harry Connick Jr. (Dr. Pete Vilmer)