In some ways, being nominated for an Oscar for his work in Pulp Fiction was the best thing that ever happened to John Travolta. After all, he soon parleyed a nomination (not even a win) into a career as the new $20 million actor. But let’s face it – John Travolta isn’t that great of an actor.
Travolta’s performance in “Basic” is irritatingly familiar to his overacted, spastic performance in The General’s Daughter. Either that, or he’s channeling Nicholas Cage from “Face Off” again. We’ve all seen the trailers – “Am I scratching your surface?” The answer is yes. Please stop.
The film opens to an Army Ranger training exercise along the Panama Canal, led by Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson). However, days later, when a rescue chopper picks up what’s left of the group, most of the team is missing, and what’s left is firing live ammunition at each other. Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), one of the two survivors, is held for questioning back at the barracks, but he refuses to talk to anyone but another Army Ranger.
John Travolta plays DEA agent Tom Hardy, who is currently on suspension. He also happens to be a former Army Ranger, so he is brought onto the base to question Dunbar. Partnered with Lt. Julia Osbourne (Neilsen), Hardy gets one story out of Dunbar – that someone fragged West during the exercise and all hell broke loose. They double-check Dunbar’s story with Kendall (Ribisi), the other survivor who was wounded in the fight. Kendall gives a decidedly different story ending with all hell breaking loose in a different way. Hardy and Osbourne soon realize that they have only a few scant hours to discover the truth before the soldiers are shipped away for a court marshal.
“Basic” has been praised by several sources (including Jay Leno, and we all know how scrutinizing he is for his guests’ films) for having some great twists and turns – and that they just keep coming even when you think the film is over. In a way, this is true. I can’t get down too much on the writer for the effort of trying to do something different. However, the twists end up so confusing – especially at the end – that they really make no sense.
I saw the film with a friend who compared all the plot twists to The Sixth Sense, and I had to take issue with this. The Sixth Sense had a single twist that actually made the entire film fall into place when you saw it, like watching the end of a great mystery. However, there are so many changes and redirections in “Basic” that it makes less sense at the end. Even at the end, when all is revealed, if you think back to earlier plot points, they actually don’t work with the new explanation.
This film has also been hailed as the reunion between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. It is, in fact, the first time they have shared the screen since Pulp Fiction. The only problem with this catch is that they really don’t share the screen. Much of Jackson’s performance appears in flashbacks to training and the combat exercise, and John Travolta is almost exclusively on the base. We get no taste of the witty banter the two shared during Pulp Fiction, which probably couldn’t be done without the help of Quentin Tarantino anyway.
The oddest thing about Travolta in this is his ability to look fat and in great shape at the same time. There are several blatant shots of him in the shower, showing off his muscle-toned arms. However, when fully dressed, he still looks a little like the pudgy Vincent Vega we saw in Pulp Fiction nine years ago.
Connie Nielsen is desperately trying to find a role that will catapult her into the A-list actors. We’ve all seen her, but usually in supporting roles in much bigger films – like Gladiator, “The Devil’s Advocate” and Mission to Mars. Now, in “Basic,” Neilsen still acts circles around Travolta, but that really isn’t saying much. Her biggest problem is her southern accent, which floats in and out like Kevin Coster’s in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and Julia Roberts’ in “Mary Reilly.”
One thing that might’ve have made this film a little better is if it wasn’t about the Army Rangers. The Rangers is an elite Special Forces team – the Army equivalent of the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs. Not just any hotheaded blowhard can join this group. However, in the film, the characters come unglued and have outbursts of betrayal and confusion unbecoming of the Rangers. The behavior shown in this film is more suited for boot camp brats than for those being trained as the elite fighting unit.
John McTiernan has only slightly recovered from his latest flops, Rollerball and The 13th Warrior. But “Basic” is a far cry from some of his best work in “Die Hard,” “Predator” and “The Hunt for Red October.”