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.
November 02, 2001 4:49am EST
Frank's (John Travolta) ex-wife Susan (Teri Polo) is planning her second marriage to respected businessman Rick (Vince Vaughn) (we know this because he receives an award from the city's chamber of commerce). However Frank and Susan's 11-year-old son Danny (Matthew O'Leary) is having trouble adjusting to the prospect of a new stepfather. The carefree Susan nonetheless goes ahead with the impending nuptials which go off without a hitch until an uninvited guest shows up at the wedding. Turns out this guest Ray (Steve Buscemi) used to be Rick's partner in crime before he became a town pillar and has come to town to collect some sort of unpaid debt. Worried about tarnishing his newfound image Rick decides to get rid of his old buddy. But he soon finds out Danny is on to him and terrorizes the tyke into keeping his dirty secret. Danny tries to get help but no one except Frank believes him.
Travolta (Swordfish) is believable enough as a caring blue-collar father but he doesn't seem to give more to his performance than needed. It could be his over-simplistic character; Frank was almost too good of a guy and lacked authenticity. Vaughn (Made) is menacing enough to pull off the role of Rick but his character is unfortunately never fully developed. Viewers are expected to buy that he was once really crooked and now the pillar of the community with hardly any basis. Polo (Meet the Parents) plays the part of a concerned mother well but it conflicts with her character's aloofness. It's hard to believe her concern over her son after she marries a man she obviously knew nothing about. For his first feature film O'Leary demonstrates a lot of potential for a young actor and was well cast as Danny.
Harold Becker's Domestic Disturbance sticks to the tried and true evil stepfather formula which makes the story a little too predictable. The film might have been more interesting had the story risen above the level of a made-for-TV movie. There were also some elements to the story that made it a bit hard to swallow like the fact that the local police department was not able to prove a murder had obviously taken place. There are a few corny scenes like when Travolta goes crashing headfirst into a car windshield but still manages to give a dopey smile to his terrified son tied up in the back seat. Surprisingly the film still provides enough tension and suspense to make it entertaining even when using old tricks like unexpectedly seeing the villain's reflection in a mirror. The look of the film and the accurate re-creation of a small seaside tourist town in Maryland add to its visual authenticity.