Deception is their most dangerous weapon.
All right, all right…I'll dispense with any John Travolta jokes. I think he's taken enough of a beating about the downward spiral of his film career. Treading upon already well worn territory (including The General's Daughter), Travolta once again enlisted in military drama/action with director John McTiernan's Basic. Also starring his Pulp Fiction co-star Samuel L. Jackson and Connie Nielson (Gladiator, One Hour Photo), Basic salutes movie goers everywhere on DVD care of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Things are never as they seem when a routine military exercise in Panama goes horribly array and leaves a group of cadets and their tough-as-nails army drill instructor, Lt. West (Jackson), dead. With only two survivors left alive, one time Ranger turned Drug Enforcement Agency officer Tom Hardy (Travolta) is called in to see if he can get the truth out of officer a young cadet named Dunbar (Brian Van Holt, Black Hawk Down), also a fellow Ranger. Hardy's assistant is Osborne (Nielson), an honorable and hard edged military officer who doubts any of Dunbar's story (which is told in a very loud 5.1 flashback). After some second guessing, Hardy and Osborne head into the hospital to visit Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi, Gone in Sixty Seconds), the second survivor from the doomed mission. His story (also told in flashback) is vastly different than Dunbar's—which means someone is lying. As Hardy and Osborne attempt to uncover the truth about West's death and the cadet's fatal mission, they find themselves deeper into a web of lies that could get them arrested, dishonorably discharged…or even dead!
"What we have here," the film Cool Hand Luke proclaimed, "is a failure to communicate." These words ring just a true for John McTiernan's Basic, a movie that feels like it's pulling the viewer in 18 different directions, then ends with utter confusion. It has no idea how to communicate its story or character motivation to the viewer. Somewhere inside Basic is a decent military drama trying to get out—unfortunately, writer James Vanderbilt's screenplay just won't let it escape. When we're talking about the guy who wrote the film Darkness Falls…well, you know you're in trouble.
Certainly the film starts out promisingly—deception and intrigue are set firmly on the table as Travolta attempts to get to the bottom of the truth. As the plot unfolds we think we see where it's heading…then it does a 180 on us. Then we think we know what's going on…and it takes a hard left into "what the hell…?!?" After a while I stopped caring about the characters and script and started wondering how the filmmakers were able to mix such explosive sounds into my home theater system. As a filmmaker this is not what you want your audience to be thinking. Due to the many plot twists and turns, each more incomprehensible than the last, I decided to focus my attentions elsewhere. I wouldn't dream of giving away the surprises, so I'll say no more about the storyline (except this: it sucks).
John Travolta, an actor who has grown on me, does his best to give the film a burst of energy. He stomps about asking people for smokes and looking smug, doing his best Danny-Zuko-is-in-the-army impression. He is commendable, but futilely swimming against the tide. Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who can usually make mundane dialogue sound interesting, is allowed to gnash his teeth a lot, look menacing, and tell the cadets that they've all got tiny dicks. His character is so vile and cruel that he seems to have lost his soul somewhere in the jungles of Peru. Though he plays it over the top, at least Jackson keeps things interesting—which is more than I can say for the lackluster plot. Both Travolta and Jackson are supported by an able cast—including Connie Nielson, Giovanni Ribisi, and Tim Daly (TV's Wings)—which makes things a bit more bearable (but only by a small margin).
Poor John McTiernan. It hasn't been a very good year for him. First there was that whole Rollerball remake (watching it was as painful as snorting crushed light bulbs up my nose) and now he's made Basic, a slightly better, yet still flawed movie. Mr. McTiernan, you're a long way from your Die Hard days. Let's hope that he's gotten all these mediocre action movies out of his system so we can get back to the slam-bang fare we've grown accustomed to.
Basic is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. All in all, this is a fine looking transfer from Columbia. The colors and black levels all appear to be in excellent shape. Basic is a very dark film and as such tends to look a tad bit shadowed. However, haloing and edge enhancement is kept to a bare minimum with dirt and grain non-existent. While it may not be reference quality, Basic's picture quality is well above average.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and French. All I can say is wow, Basic has a fantastic sound mix (as expected). There are seemingly gazillions of effects throughout this mix, each of them bombastic and crashing. Much of the action takes place in a rain-soaked, hurricane trampled jungle—this means that all of the speakers will get a hearty workout. All aspects of the mix, including Klaus Badelt's pulsating military score, are clear of any distortion or hiss. Also included on this disc are English and French subtitles.
Extras, Extras! Read all about them…err, I mean see all about them. Oh, whatever. Basic includes a few meaty supplements, so here's a rundown of what's been included on this disc:
Commentary Track by Director John McTiernan: Mr. Rollerball himself sits back for a discussion about the movie, to the delight of Basic's fan club (number of members: 6). McTiernan spends a large deal of time discussing James Vanderbilt's confusing screenplay, though his attempts are in vain—the damn thing still doesn't make much sense. Otherwise, the usual casting stories, location thoughts, and other tidbits are shared with the viewer. Since I can't really recommend the movie, it's hard to justify spending another hour and a half of your time sitting through this commentary track.
"Basic: A Director's Design" and "Basic Ingredients: A Writer's Perspective" Featurettes: Each of these short features should give the viewer a bit more insight into the making of the film. "A Director's Design" (about 22 minutes) is your basic promo piece that includes talking head interviews with the cast and crew, each discussing various points about their characters and the screenplay, as well as insight about the production shoot. Some behind-the-scenes footage is included, making this a decent piece for fans to wade through. "Basic Ingredients: A Writer's Perspective" (around 17 minutes long) focuses on James Vanderbilt's incoherent screenplay and his thoughts on how to make a military thriller that consistently jerks around the viewer. In the process there are a few snippets from deleted scenes, though it's never anything worth getting excited over.
Finally there are some filmographies for some of the cast and crew, as well as theatrical trailers for Basic, Identity, xXx, Bad Boys II, S.W.A.T., Formula 51, and Tears of the Sun, all presented in anamorphic widescreen.
While Basic is mildly watchable stuff, it makes too little sense to be considered well produced entertainment. Travolta and Jackson are in fine form, and the 5.1 mix should knock your socks off. Maybe you're time would be better spent at a soup kitchen doing the good Lord's work? You decide.
Basically, this is a movie that can be skipped. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director John McTiernan
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