Don't! Don't ask, tell... or see
After all the schedule changes that followed the 9/11 attack, it's incredible that Columbia went ahead and released Basic during the war in Iraq. It's not as if there wasn't plenty of warning this time, and even those of us who oppose the war aren't exactly craving a thriller that shows the U.S. military in a bad light this week.
Well, not the whole military, exactly– although a reference to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" reminds us the system isn't perfect. This is one of those stories with so many twists that while only a few people are guilty of anything, nearly every character comes under suspicion at some point.
The screenplay is by James Vanderbilt, whose previous credit was as a co-writer of Darkness Falls– but let's not hold that against him. The problem here is that we get so many conflicting versions of a complex plot thrown at us, we wish it was a book so we could keep flipping back to see who said what, who they were talking about, and when and why they said it.
In the current commercial atmosphere, one can only suspect the filmmakers of confusing us so we'll have to see Basic several times or buy the DVD when it comes out in order to understand a story a good movie would have made clear in one sitting.
Basic isn't all bad by a long shot. It's got John Travolta's charm going for it, and that goes a long way. He plays Tom Hardy, a former Army Ranger working for the DEA, but currently suspected of taking bribes.
In the Panama Canal Zone Sgt. West (Samuel L. Jackson) takes six Ranger trainees on a routine exercise. Seventeen hours later, one is dead, one wounded, and four, including Sgt. West, missing. In-house investigator Capt. Osborne (Connie Nielsen with what may be the least consistent drawl in screen history) can't get any information out of the survivors, so post commander Col. Styles (Tim Daly) sends for Tom, "the best interrogator I've ever seen."
Although Capt. Osborne resists his charm, Tom is able to get a statement from Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) with some details of what happened, and a contradictory statement from Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), the wounded man Dunbar carried to safety.
Kendall turns out to be the gay son of a general. He and his father hate each other, and he assumes everyone else in the Army hates him, too. Although it seems significant for a moment, if you go to the bathroom during this brief scene you'll never know Kendall is gay.
The Kendall and Dunbar accounts are just two of several you'll see, most of them lies. It's no surprise that everyone hated Sgt. West, even Tom, who "wanted him dead 15 years ago." It may not even be surprising that there are drugs involved.
There are plot twists that will catch you off guard, but by the end, you'll be so confused that nothing can straighten you out. One intended surprise is telegraphed by an amateurish piece of editing: Someone mentions a mysterious, unknown "partner" and the next shot solves the mystery.
Most of Basic takes place at night in the rain. This can be romantic in the right circumstances but in a movie it can be downright annoying, especially when the script is already doing enough to obscure the action.
If you enjoyed Travolta and Jackson in Pulp Fiction, you'll be disappointed that they have almost no scenes together in Basic. Some reunion! But each does what he does and does it well enough to make Basic almost worth seeing.