[box cover]

Basic

Nine years after John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson teamed up to make movie history in Q. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), it had started to seem that a reunion on the big screen was long overdue (matters not helped since Q.T.'s extensive sabbatical after 1997's Jackie Brown). What a shame then that the erstwhile hit-men Jules and Vincent should once again find themselves face to face in a film as pedestrian, elementary, and hackneyed as the military policier Basic (2003). Jackson stars as Army Sgt. Nathan West, a tough-as-shell-casings Ranger boss who mercilessly drills his men in the rough jungles of Panama — he's so tough, in fact, that when a hurricane rolls over the isthmus, West views it as an "opportunity." Said opportunity is to drop six of his troops deep in the bush under cover of night (and storm) and have them take out targets before reaching a rally point. But when the squad is six hours overdue, a search party soon finds them — two men short. And there's no sign of Sgt. West. Enter Tom Hardy (John Travolta), a former Army Ranger-turned-DEA agent, and one of the best interrogators in the western hemisphere. Brought in by a high-ranking officer to lead the investigation, all of his work officially will be credited to greenhorn investigator Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), which doesn't sit well with her at all. But after the pair starts debriefing the returned Rangers, they soon discover that their stories don't jibe. And when somebody mentions trafficking drugs, Hardy figures there's more here than meets the eye. Directed by veteran action helmer John McTiernan (The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard) and with a reasonably good cast on hand, it's frustrating that Basic lives up to its title — it's by-the-book Hollywood filmmaking, right down to the series of plot twists that cap the film. For starters, the Rashoman-style storytelling is nothing new, and has been seen in a military drama as recently as Courage Under Fire (1996), while Travolta did the corrupt-military-establishment thing as recently as The General's Daughter (1999). It doesn't take more energy than the calories in bowl of popcorn to absorb this outing. That said, the cast is enjoyable enough — Travolta is a charming smart-ass (without any Battlefield Earth-style cackling, thank goodness), while Jackson's drill-sergeant patter is an awful lot of fun (he warns his men that training accidents happen in Panama, and that he will repeat these accidents when necessary). The supporting crew includes Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt, Taye Diggs, Timothy Daly, and Harry Connick Jr, all of whom never strike a false note. And the conclusion, while completely contrived, gives one the odd sense that this is either mainstream Hollywood fodder or the pilot for what would be the best TV series ever. It's a good fix for Travolta/Jackson fans who've got a post-Pulp jones. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Basic features a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Features include a commentary with director McTiernan, the featurettes "A Director's Design" (22 min.) and "A Writer's Perspective" (17 min.), filmographies, and trailers. Keep-case.
—JJB



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