Though director John McTiernan has been
responsible for some of the most iconic stalwarts of the action
genre, including Predator and Die Hard, his 2003
military thriller Basic garnered tepid reviews and a
decidedly modest box office take of some $27 million in the US.
The film revolves around a group of
highly trained US Army Ranger trainees, led by the sadistic Sergeant
West (Samuel L. Jackson). A training mission in the waterlogged
jungles of Panama goes horribly awry, and West and three soldiers
end up dead. Back on base Captain Julia Osborne (Connie Neilson)
has little success extracting information from one of the survivors
and the resident Colonel decides to bring in the big guns; a former
Ranger and experienced interrogator currently under investigation
for suspicions of bribery (John Travolta). Together Travolta and
Nielson must put aside their differences and piece together a chain
of events that grows increasingly sinister as the movie progresses.
Most critics responded negatively to
the film’s abundance of plot twists and myriad narrative
convolutions. I personally can’t fault the film for this; sure it
piles on twist after twist until you don’t know what’s what, but
it’s an ambitious approach from McTiernan and he is after all just
trying to entertain his audience.
My problem with the film was the silly,
histrionic performances. Travolta minces around like he’s
auditioning for a role on Apocalypse Now and Nielson spends
most of her time muttering in an bizarre Southern accent or
shrieking vitriol for no discernable reason. At one point she slaps
an Army doctor (Harry Connick, Jr.) off his chair with a phone book,
breaking his nose, then shrugs ‘That was illegal. I’ve got nothing
to lose’ by way of explanation. Rather than saying ‘You’re right,
that was illegal – I’m going to the military police’, Connick,
Jr. breaks down and tells her everything. Silly. Samuel L. Jackson
tries his darndest with the material at hand but his character
likewise fails to pass muster – any Sergeant that blatantly cruel
and sadistic would’ve had a bullet put in his back years ago – and
though the actors portraying the Rangers are universally excellent,
among them Giovanni Ribisi and Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2)
there are quite a few inaccuracies at play which pointlessly
distract from an already complicated storyline.
For one thing women aren’t allowed to
join the Rangers, so as nice Sanchez is to look at her presence in a
jungle bunker with half a dozen testosterone-laden cohorts is
absurd. For another they don’t wear berets in a combat or training
environment, nor do they shout ‘hoo-ha’ as Sergeant West is
constantly admonishing them to do. There probably isn’t an action
movie made that doesn’t require at least some suspension of
disbelief, but emblazoning a central character’s uniform with the
wrong insignia and allowing two characters to trade identities
merely by wearing the wrong dog tags is taking liberties even by the
standards of the genre.
At any rate Basic is a complex,
ambitious and often engaging film. It’s also over the top,
needlessly contorted and ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. But it
certainly has its moments.
The Blu-ray release of the film is bare
bones, with nary a bonus feature in sight. Both the TrueHD and DTS
audio tracks are impressive, but the DTS comes up trumps in terms of
resonance and sheer immersion, being a suitably ballsy affair
considering the macho subject matter. Picture quality is also
pristine, and the film likewise cannot be faulted in this regard.
Certainly worth a watch, but the lack
of bonus features is a real deficit and ultimately this one is best
taken with a grain of salt.