Grade: B
Year: 2003
Director: John McTiernan
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Genre: Mystery
Rated: R
By Scott Spicciati

From Columbia Pictures comes this new engaging military thriller. It stars John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson under the direction of "Die Hard's" John McTiernan. The movie is called "Basic," however, you will quickly learn it is anything but.

I write this review remembering the best part of the film; the opening few minutes. Reader, let me tell you how great it is. The haunting score of Klaus Badelt and Ramin Djawadi is more chilling than any soundtrack from any horror movie. The music here is perfect as we decent upon the Panama Canal Zone. It begins to rain and it will continue to pour without ever stopping as long as we are in the theater. A helicopter is flying through the canal between thick forests that line the border. Onboard are six Army Rangers and their mysteriously creepy drill-instructor, Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson).

The training mission quickly turns tragic immediately after the rangers land in the woods. As the helicopter pilots fly around the pick-up zone once time has elapsed, they spot two crippled rangers running from an unknown pursuer, each exchanging machine gun fire. When the helicopter lands, only two men are found alive, the others are all missing and presumed dead.

Base commander Bill Styles (Tim Daly) is beginning to sweat knowing that Washington will be taking over the investigation in a matter of hours unless he can crack the case and get the two survivors to talk. The only problem is, they won't. The base interrogator, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), is having little luck with Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), one of two men recovered from the disastrous training mission. The other man is Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), whom is still in the hospital after taking fire during the mission.

Styles has no choice but to bring back Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a former ranger and now DEA agent currently being investigated for bribery in his possible involvement with drug trafficking. But trust me, that part of the plot will not be much concern to you as we are tossed many details and clues about the bigger picture.

And boy do we get clues, information, flashbacks, motives, explanations, and of course theories. Because there are only two surviving witnesses, Hardy and Osborne must rely solely on the two testimonies in order to piece the puzzle together.

We get information on the other trainees: Pike (Taye Diggs), Castro (Cristian de la Fuente), Mueller (Dash Mihok) and Nunez (Roselyn Sanchez). If you're not good with names then it will take you awhile to finally understand what is meant by "Castro did this while Mueller did that."

Hardy and Osborne start off on a sour note as Osborne expected to handle the case all by herself, but she quickly learns how good Hardy really is and begins respecting him as an accomplished interrogator. Too bad she never gets the opportunity to respect him for his newly furnished six-pack abs that we get the pleasure of seeing when Hardy gets the call from Styles back home. I couldn't help but wonder if Travolta was hoping his good shape would prove his career as an actor is still far from over.

It begins to look like progress is being made until Kendall wraps up his story from the hospital. It is nothing like Dunbar's, and to make matters worse, both of them keep changing their story every time Hardy and Osborne ask for it.

All of trainees appear to have a motive, especially Pike as the one who took most of Sgt. West's heat. We learn through flashbacks how cruel Sgt. West was to his men. He never let his rangers eat, sleep or rest while in training. After each mission ended, a new one began. West liked to pick on Pike, humiliating him in front of the others. You'd think when your superior officer tells you to surrender your weapon, that best thing to do would be to surrender your weapon. Nope, not in this case. Poor Pike. And because of this cruelty, we first get the idea that Pike was the one who set-off the explosion and killed West during the training mission. But then we learn about other motives and how Pike might not have been the most likely suspect out of the bunch.

This is where the movie suffers greatly. It's a fun and exciting mystery, but it does little good because it is impossible for us the viewers, to figure out what is going on or how it will resolve. Smart thrillers at least give you the chance to figure out what is going to happen. But in "Basic," the stories are told in flashbacks, and they keep changing. We want to trust at least one of the two witnesses, Dunbar or Kendall, but both continually provide different and inconsistent stories. On top of that, we have the burden of trying to match faces with names, only for the carpet to be pulled up from under us when we later learn that even some of the names that were told are wrong.

We get jerked around so much that it is only a matter of time before even the sharpest movie-goer throws in the towel. This factor alone dictates that "Basic" deserves less credit than what I give it, but I can't overlook how great this film initially starts off and how it maintained itself. The colorful cinematography reminds me of "Tears of the Sun," only this film takes place during a roaring hurricane.

The dialogue is extremely witty. I don't know who was funnier, Travolta's character or Jackson's. And there's something about Jackson's smile in this film that is so affectively creepy, I wonder why Jackson doesn't get more of these roles where we don't know who he is. There were enough aspects (acting, dialogue, cinematography, score) that allowed me to enjoy "Basic," so I didn't feel betrayed like many other critics did when we got to the resolution.

If you're going to see this movie, I tell you to not even try figuring it out. But you will try, and when the movie is over and you have been tricked and defeated, it will be up to you to decide whether or not all of the gratuitous deception was worth your time. For me, it was.

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Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Contact Editor: Scott Spicciati