Hardened by years of brutal but loyal military service special ops officer Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) is assigned to find the president's apparently kidnapped daughter Laura Newton (Kristen Bell). Pairing up with his protégé Curtis (Derek Luke) Scott works diligently with a task force of presidential advisors the Secret Service the FBI and the CIA to find her and through their investigation they stumble upon a white slavery ring in the Middle East which may--or may not--have some connection to Laura's disappearance. The straightforward search-and-rescue mission is soon bogged down in political machinations and the girl's abduction starts to look even more suspicious than it did at first. In fact the mission comes to an abrupt halt altogether when the girl is supposedly found drowned from a boating accident. Scott returns to his quiet life until Curtis shows up and proves that Laura is still alive and most likely trapped in the white slavery ring. In a race against time Scott and Curtis embark on their own unofficial rescue mission--and put themselves at the center of a dangerous conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the U.S. government.
Val Kilmer probably won't be joining Mamet's dedicated circle of players--which includes Joe Mantegna William H. Macy and Mamet's wife actress Rebecca Pidgeon--any time soon. While it's clear Kilmer took the role to work with the talented writer/director he isn't well suited to deliver "Mamet-speak"--the rapid fire delivery of terse dialogue the writer is known for--and Kilmer looks uncomfortable trying to do it. The gifted actor who can't help but bring in his own quirky sensibilities to the part still hits the nail on the head as steely resolute Scott. But the minute he starts dispensing sage advice--Mamet-style--Kilmer sticks out like a sore thumb. Same goes for Luke (Antwone Fisher) who is entirely miscast as Scott's sidekick. Others in the ensemble however handle the Mamet chores more adeptly including Macy and Ed O'Neill (yes the guy from TV's Married ... With Children) as presidential aides.
Spartan's real problem however is that it's a thriller without much thrill. Mamet's expertise is in creating scenarios within a microcosm whether it's a world of con artists (House of Games; The Spanish Prisoner) salesmen (Glengarry Glen Ross) or even showbiz (State and Main). These Mamet films are even-keeled--almost devoid of emotion. He sets up characters and actions relevant to that particular world so when characters spout lines in Mamet's distinctive style it comes off as perfectly natural. Yet with Spartan Mamet is tackling a bigger grander picture and when his style is applied to the world as a whole it doesn't work. Plus in the thriller genre the audience needs to feel invested in the characters and Mamet's distant unemotional style doesn't lend itself to sending the audience's collective hearts racing. The only poignant moment in the film belongs to Bell as the wounded daughter who just wants a little attention from Daddy and the only truly exciting moments are during her rescue. That said however Spartan proves Mamet still knows how to craft a story. Although the script is at times vague and convoluted it thankfully never falls into any of the genre's usual patterns and it throws in enough twists to keep you on your toes.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.
Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) has it made. His screenwriting career is on the rise his first movie's just been made and he's got a cute girl. Life is good--until the House Un-American Activities Committee mistakenly fingers him as a Communist and he quickly falls from the A-list to the blacklist. Getting dumped by both his studio and his girl is nothing a little drinking can't remedy but after drowning his sorrows he nearly drowns himself when he decides to drive drunk and his car veers into the river knocking him unconscious. When Peter comes to he can't remember who he is or where he came from so he's taken in by the kindly people of Lawson a burg stuck in time and still mourning the loss of many of its sons in World War II. They mistake him for Luke Trimble one of their long-lost boys who went MIA in World War II and are overjoyed at his return. Luke's father Harry (Martin Landau) whose zest for life had dwindled so much that he let his beloved movie house The Majestic fall to ruin but with "Luke's" return he plans to reopen it. Celebrations abound. Peter-as-Luke even returns to his relationship with fiancée Adele (Laurie Holden). Meanwhile Peter may have forgotten who he was but the Feds haven't and they're on his tail.
When Carrey's given the right material like he was with The Truman Show he can exhibit moments of greatness. The Majestic doesn't give Carrey the leeway to show his quirky sensibilities demanding that he play it straight throughout the movie (there are a few--too few--glances at humor that Carrey doesn't play up). To bring off the kind of schmaltz this movie oozes Carrey had to bring something of an edge to his character. Instead Peter is neither likable nor unlikable coming off as a bland confused schmo until the climactic end which after two hours of his weak personality is wholly unbelievable. Landau is unexciting as a caricature of the sad sentimental old man without hope--you want to sympathize but there's something faintly chilly about him. Holden's liberated-woman lawyer might have played better in a contemporary movie; she looks and acts too much like a modern-day actress trying to portray a woman of the '50s.
Was this some kind of vanity project dreamed up by a director too taken with his own greatness and past success? Was Frank Darabont envisioning an It's a Wonderful Life for the next generation? (Psst…it's likely the majority of the modern moviegoing public doesn't know who Frank Capra is and could care less especially when the movie is as slow and as completely unbelievable as this one.) Apparently Darabont's in love with his own direction because hardly a moment goes by without some lingering reaction shot. Darabont took an intriguing story about amnesia and mistaken identity and slathered it with sap. Old-fashioned period stories can be lots of fun but it's imperative they be able to keep a present-day audience's interest by including a bit of modern wit and pace. Unfortunately this sticks to the straight-and-narrow. Nobody's going to buy the two-dimensional main characters the shiny happy townspeople or especially the schlocky my-country-'tis-of-thee finale. In its favor The Majestic's ultimate message is a nice one. The movie does have its heartfelt moments and its '50s feel is authentic if a little polished.