THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


One of the rules I have for moviegoing is this: I try to avoid hearing as much as possible about a movie before seeing it. I'm better able to review a film's merit if I am approaching it from scratch. Sometimes, though, there's just no way to avoid getting a spoiler beforehand. And that's exactly what happened with the military mystery Basic. Someone I know saw the film early and told me it had a surprise plot twist at the end. I commented that I often like stories that had twist endings. "Yeah," he said, "you're supposed to think [major plot twist deleted], but that's not the case." O-kay, so much for surprises. When I got my turn to see Basic a few days later, I tried to forget what I already knew (admittedly not an easy task). Turns out it doesn't matter what I knew. This film has such a convoluted plot that it would be unsatisfying for me under any circumstance.

Samuel L. Jackson plays a tough Army Ranger at the center of a mystery in Basic
John Travolta plays Tom Hardy, a DEA investigator (and ex-Army Ranger) tossed out of the organization following allegations of accepting a bribe. He is called by his old Army buddy Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) for help finding answers to a botched training exercise, much to the dismay of Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), who feels she should be the lead investigator. Background information reveals that a hard-as-nails Ranger - Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) - was killed along with several of his Special Forces trainees in Panama. The only two survivors are Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi); they presumably know what happened. Hardy and Osborne first talk to Dunbar, who tells them West was killed by Pike (Taye Diggs) in retaliation for merciless antagonism during training. The others, he claims, were killed in the resulting skirmish.

Kendall, wounded by a gunshot during the fracas, tells a slightly different story. He claims someone else is the killer and that the others were killed under slightly different circumstances. Hardy and Osborne then return to Dunbar, who tells them yet a third variation on the story. By now the investigators are thoroughly confused...and so are we. As it goes on, the movie presents a few more different versions of what happened, just in case we're not confused enough.

Let's forget about the specifics of the film for a minute and look at why Basic doesn't work on a theoretical level. This is the kind of movie that wants to constantly change the rules on you. It assumes that pulling out wild plot twists is all that really matters, not whether there's a logical justification for those twists. Allow me to use a purely hypothetical example. Imagine a film in which it is a major plot point that, say, Bob's shirt was red. Then, halfway through the movie, someone announces (with much self-importance) that Bob's shirt wasn't red at all; it was green. The film intends you to be shocked by this new information. A while later, someone else proclaims that Bob's shirt wasn't green either; it was blue. Finally, in the last ten minutes, you get the biggest bombshell of all: Bob was never wearing a shirt to begin with! There's a lot of changing things around in this scenario, much of it seeming to be random and without purpose. Basic is the exact same way.

If you are the kind of viewer who only cares about bring surprised for the sake of being surprised, then Basic is the movie for you. If, like me, you want to know exactly why Bob's shirt color is important to begin with, you are likely to leave feeling as frustrated and mad as I did. There have been good movies that pull the rug out from under you. The Usual Suspects, Memento, and Vanilla Sky are three favorites of mine. What separates them from Basic is that they played fair; they adhered to logic, at least within the confines of their own stories. Basic just changes the facts to create generic twists. It makes such a mess of things that by the end, it really doesn't matter who did what. Everything has been jumbled around so badly that the film negates its own story.

Let's not forget that ending, either. When the movie pulls out its final trick (and that's what it is - a trick), it scrambles to explain how this revelation fits into everything we've just seen. The characters exchange a few quippy lines of dialogue trying to tie up loose ends, but it's all in vein. The dialogue whizzes by so quickly that there's no time to comprehend it. I walked out feeling enraged at the movie. After spending almost two hours with a film, I want to know exactly what was going on, and I get mad when I don't. As I drove home, the realization hit that the movie had to rush through the explanation because it was all smoke and mirrors anyway. The plot completely unravels beyond salvation in those final moments.

There's a lot of talent wasted here, especially Travolta and Jackson. Director John McTiernan used to make reliably exciting movies like Die Hard, but lately he's been cranking out stuff like this or Rollerball. Sometimes I hear filmmakers say they had to read the script a couple times in order to fully figure out what's going on. A good rule for them to follow is this: if you have to read it twice to get it, chances are good that the audience won't be able to figure it out from watching it one time. Like I said earlier, it didn't really matter what I already knew about Basic because the movie doesn't provide any answers to the most important question: Why?

( 1/2 out of four)

Basic is rated R for language and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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