In the military thriller Basic, a young U.S. Army provost marshal (Connie Nielsen) teams up with a cocky DEA agent (John Travolta) to investigate the suspicious death of a hated Marine sergeant (Samuel L. Jackson). As they reconstruct the events the led to the sergeant's demise, they uncover a web of lies and conspiracies in which no one can be trusted, and nothing is at all what it seems.
The most overt feature of Basic is how it is anything but what its title implies. This is the type of mystery that takes pride in being confusing and outright misleading. And it doesn't sport just one or two climactic surprises--instead, it winds its way through a tangled maze of twists and turns. Some are predictable, while others are genuinely surprising. Unfortunately, for all the ups and downs this story takes, this is a rollercoaster that ends on a low point. The finale is so ridiculously out of the blue that it's hard not to feel cheated. The silver lining of Basic's sloppy, unwieldy script is a small consolation: by the time the climax is delivered, the audience no longer cares about how much sense it makes.
Hollywood's best trick endings hold up to the scrutiny of a rewatch and make perfect sense in retrospect, while the bad ones defy logic in hindsight. The latter are the types of stories that mask their surprises in bold faced lies rather than subtle creativity. That's what Basic does, relying on blatant audience deception and absurd 180s for cheap shock value. But in spite of the feeble storytelling, the movie's brisk pace and energy make it bearable. The scenes are presented with a certain entertaining intensity that will prompt many viewers to ignore the fact they're being jerked around. (For those who have already watched this film from beginning to end, I pose this question: Isn't a Section 8 what Klinger was bucking for in M*A*S*H?)
John Travolta is at ease in his manic tough guy persona, and he enjoys a decent chemistry with Connie Nielsen that only falters when the script takes an unnecessary shot at generic sexual tension.
The supporting cast is generally solid, even though their roles are anything but original. Tim Daly makes a welcome turnaround from the waning days of TV's Wings, when he was increasingly forced to play the stooge. Giovanni Ribisi overacts like he's in a stage play, but at least avoids the pitfall of playing yet another clueless, teary-eyed simpleton. Rush Hour 2 babe Roselyn Sanchez adds "tough chick" to her acting resume, barely recognizable as the group's token version of Vasquez--an increasingly standard piece in military flicks.
But as usual, Samuel L. Jackson is the man who steals the show by delivering his signature "I am one bull you do not wanna f*** with" performance. For the majority of the movie, his character is one mean mutha-shut-yo-mouth who constantly demoralizes his recruits with trash talk and harsh orders. Watching him bust balls on them is a major highlight, if not the film's crowning achievement. Sadly, there are only minor doses of Jackson's insanity--then it's back to more mystery solving antics.
Basic has been touted as the first onscreen pairing of stars Travolta and Jackson since their acclaimed turns in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. But fans shouldn't automatically expect snappy dialogue and hilarious violence. Instead, viewers should tune their brains down to "simmer" and simply enjoy the ride. Trying to make sense of the weak plot will only make you cock your head quizzically like a dog with a phonograph.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)