Here’s a film that twists a rather straightforward plot about an Army Ranger training mission gone awry and the conflicting Rashomon-style web of intrigue that ensues into a jumbo pretzel of tangled truths and motives, and—get this—it’s called Basic. Hardy har har. Lest even Beavis and Butt-head feel left out of the joke by the time the film swallows its own tail in a vainglorious effort to make sure nobody can predict the twist ending that comes after the twist ending that comes after the twist ending (much less tell what’s going on at any point during the film, thanks to a sound mix on par with high school AV club work that renders most of the dialogue unintelligible), Basic is actually boiled down to the most uncomplicated of summations: it makes absolutely no sense. Maybe that doesn’t matter; the film is so engrossed in its efforts that it effectively bamboozles itself, and any movie careening around from one irrational set piece to the next like a chicken with its head cut off can’t help but muster up some lame entertainment value. In a way there’s some magic on display worthy of the great Houdini—in scene after scene, logic and reason vanish before our very eyes with a well-timed poof!
John Travolta, as a shady DEA agent investigating the mystery, and Samuel L. Jackson, as a bug-eyed drill sergeant at the center of the intrigue, manage to acquit themselves by overacting without stopping to pay attention to what any of their co-stars say or do. Several painful moments, however, can be attributed to Connie Nielsen, who with her cropped Joan Allen hairdo, dreadful earnestness, and here-today-gone-tomorrow Southern accent seems to have been hypnotized into taking the film seriously. (Suggestion: next time, hypnotize her into giving a good performance.) But even she’s no match for the most consistently horrifying actor of the last five years, Giovanni Ribisi, who is only too happy to dig deeper than the cast of The Core by hitting a new low as a foppish gay private who acts and speaks as if he’s stuck in a timewarp imitation of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
It’s his unfathomable presence that condemns John McTiernan, who is grasping at straws after the Rollerball fiasco. The director of great entertainments like Die Hard and The Thomas Crown Affair needed to prove that he’s still got what it takes to make a smart action thriller instead of flailing around in kindergarten territory, but Basic, despite some efficient technical direction and at least one drop-dead gorgeous shot courtesy of cinematographer Steve Mason (Travota framed in the doorjamb of a truck with a flashing light illuminating the rain around him), is a film that would doubtfully appeal to even pre-schoolers weaned on Blue’s Clues or Scooby-Doo. Movie basics are character and story, not narrative sleight-of-hand. Filmmakers determined to come up with a crafty, twist-laden thriller should start by asking themselves this: would people want to watch this story if it didn’t try to pull the rug out from under them every three minutes? If not, try again. That’s the type of bottom-line common sense that Basic just doesn’t have.