Basic review by Mike Long

As I sat down to watch Basic , I realized that I hadn't seen a trailer for the film during it's brief theatrical run, and that I didn't really know much about it, other than the fact that it starred John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Well, imagine my surprise when Tim Daly shows up in the film! Being a huge fan of Wings , I was delighted to see Tim getting some work. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Basic takes place on an U.S. Army base in Panama. A group of Rangers, led by Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), have gone out on a training exercise during a hurricane, and are overdue for their pickup. When Colonel Bill Styles (Tim Daly) leads a team to find the men, he finds that only two have survived the mission. Once back at the base, Styles has Lieutenant Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen) begin questioning the only coherent survivor, Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). When Dunbar insists on seeing a fellow Ranger, Styles calls in his old friend Tom Hardy (John Travolta), an ex-Ranger who is now a DEA agent working in Panama.

Once Hardy begins to question Dunbar, the pieces of the mystery and the specifics of what went wrong on the training mission begin to fall into place. It seems that everyone hated Sergeant West due to his cruel treatment towards his soldiers. Dunbar states that a specific soldier named Pike (Taye Diggs) really hated West and that had plotted the Sergeant's murder. However, when Hardy and Osborne are able to question the other survivor, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), they get a totally different story. As a transport plane arrives to take Dunbar and Kendall back to the U.S. for processing, Hardy and Osborne must race to discover who killed West and what really happened on that stormy night.

At best, Basic is a mediocre murder-mystery-thriller, which suffers from two major flaws. First, nothing in the film feels the slightest bit original. Aside from the obvious comparisons to Rashomon , as the story is told in multiple flashbacks, Basic also resembles other military thrillers such as A Soldier's Story , A Few Good Men , and Travolta's own The General's Daughter . It's difficult to not think of these other films while watching Basic . The second problem is the acting. Travolta is OK for the most part, but there are several scenes where he just goes overboard, emoting this way and that. Travolta is truly at his best when he's playing quiet cool and his explosive scenes just don't work. Also, Connie Nielsen may be pretty on the eyes, but she seems to be lost in this role. Having said that, the supporting cast of Samuel L. Jackson (I say supporting because he isn't in the film that much), Taye Diggs, Tim Daly, and Harry Connick, Jr. are very good. It's difficult to comment on Giovanni Ribisi's performance, as he appears to be doing channeling both James Spader and Austin Powers and is appearing in a totally different film.

Despite these shortcomings, Basic is basically a very watchable long as you don't think very hard. Director John McTiernan (Die Hard , Predator ) always make very pretty films (notice his use of light and dark) and does a good job of keeping the story moving along quite well. Even with all of the hackneyed premises that fill the film (hard-assed drill sergeant that everyone hates, interrigations, etc.), the story is mildly interesting, and it's very easy to get caught up in the story, attempting to guess who's telling the truth and who actually killed West. Unfortunately, the film's finale takes a wicked 180 degree turn that will leave many viewers shaking their heads in disbelief. Also, McTiernan uses a camera-move to reveal the true villain which would make Umberto Lenzi blush. Basic is far from perfect, but it is defiintely worth a rental.

Basic comes to DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2:35:1 and the high definition transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing very little grain and no overt defects from the source material. Much of the film takes place in near darkness, and these shots are never overly dark in this transfer. There is some occasional evidence of edge enhancement, but otherwise the transfer looks great. The primary audio track on the DVD is a Dolby digital 5.1 mix. This track will work as a great demo for your surround sound system, as it offers fantastic use of the rear speakers, and wall-shattering bass during the helicopter flight scenes. But, the dynamic range is way out of whack here, and these great sound effects often overpower the dialogue. In fact, there are several scenes in which characters whisper, and I found myself constantly reaching for the remote to adjust the volume.

Columbia has graced this DVD with only a few extra features. We start with an audio commentary from director John McTiernan. Those who have heard McTiernan's commentaries in the past know that he's a man of few words, and that trend continues here. He does offer some insight into the film's production, but there are long pauses and his low, monotone voice makes him difficult to understand at times. McTiernan is obstensivley the focus of the first of two featurettes, "Basic : A Director's Design", but this 22-minute segment is actually a standard "making of" featurette. It offers some behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with the main cast and crew. At one point, costume designer Kate Harrington refers to McTiernan as "McT". Is she comparing him to that hack McG? That's not even funny. The second featurette is entitled "Basic : A Writer's Perspective", and this time, we are given what we were promise, as it focuses on writer James Vanderbilt. He discusses his work on the script and the 17-minute segment also includes a few deleted scenes. The extras are rounded out by cast filmographies and the trailer for Basic.

Basic is a film that truly lives up to its name, as it comes across as your basic murder-mystery.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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