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Overall Rating
1.9

Awesome: 6.49%
Worth A Look: 11.69%
Average: 1.3%
Pretty Bad: 25.97%
Total Crap54.55%

4 reviews, 53 user ratings


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Basic
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by Jack Sommersby

"Beware of Any Film That Larry King Endorses!"
1 stars

Another lump of coal in John Travolta's career stocking.

The best thing one can say about John McTiernan's Basic is that it's better than John McTiernan's Rollerball. Of course, being that Rollerball was a thoroughly incompetent cinematic turkey, the fact that Basic is superior to it isn't exactly intended as lavish praise. It's simply a fact, even though it's somewhat akin to preferring to be stabbed in the arm than in the groin -- either choice sucks, but you go with the least detrimental. McTiernan's always been an interesting filmmaker, and his career started well. His directorial debut, 1986's underrated Nomads (which featured an electrifying Pierce Brosnan), was a creepy supernatural fable that alienated more audiences than it allured with its overly dense story; but his follow-up, the Arnold Schwarzeneggar star vehicle Predator, was a box-office success. Next up was 1988's magnificent Die Hard, which propelled McTiernan to the top echelon of Hollywood directors; and he followed that classic up with the astute adaptation of author Tom Clancy's best seller The Hunt for Red October. In my book, he scored an astonishing four in a row (though time hasn't been too kind to Predator in retrospect). However, I can't defend 1991's grating, nonsensical Medicine Man, which found Sean Connery swinging around a jungle in search of a cure for cancer; nor could I aver that either 1993's entertaining The Last Action Hero or 1995's engaging Die Hard: With a Vengeance wasn't handicapped by a considerable lack of focus and for being somewhat overscaled. Yet McTiernan scored a same-year double whammy in 1999 with two wonderful entertainments, The 13th Warrior and The Thomas Crown Affair. Unfortunately, neither one was really a blockbuster, so maybe the desire for a box-office smash, McTiernan unwisely agreed to helm the 2002 remake of Rollerball, even though the 1975 original was widely regarded as substandard and reaped only a moderate profit. Well, the remake predictably tanked big-time, and now this talented director is back with the military thriller Basic. It is godawful.

A phrase like "a good John Travolta military film" is going to become quite the oxymoron after Basic, what with Travolta's previous on-screen happenstances on a military base occurring in the disgusting The General's Daughter. There he played a military investigator on the murder case of a beautiful female lieutenant; but rather than exploring the potent topic of mistreatment of women in the armed services like it's fine same-name source novel did, the filmmakers (primarily the screenwriter -- that overemployed hack William Goldman) concentrated instead on the visceral physical cruelties inflicted upon the dead lieutenant, whether she was being gang-raped or bound totally nude and spread-eagled on a damp ground with tent pegs when she was dead and alive (more of her alive, naturally, to give the wife-beating crowd a cheap turn-on). It was the ultimate hypocritical picture: purporting to be disgusted by the very same misogynistic attitudes and actions the filmmakers expected you in turn to be enraptured by as they played out on the silver screen. In Basic, Travolta plays an ex-Army Ranger/now-DEA agent summoned to a Panama military base by an old friend, Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly), to interrogate one of only two Ranger trainees who survived an exercise in the depths of a jungle during a hurricane; all the others in their unit, including their fierce commanding officer, Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), are presumed dead. But the trainee, Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), isn't talking. With only six hours until Dunbar is taken to Washington, Styles insists Hardy find a way to get the details of the fateful excursion; he's worried about the incident making him and his command look bad. So Hardy, accompanied by Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), goes to work on the kid, and the audience is soon plunged into a narrative structure akin to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, where the film moves forward through the use of flashbacks, with the characters recounting the story to their present-day inquisitors (and, in a sense, to the audience as well).

Employing this kind of storytelling device is risky for two reasons: first, in switching back and forth between present and past, a good deal of immediacy to the overall story can be lost; second, it can give off whiffs of desperation by the filmmakers in that the material is so innately devoid of substance that a catchy device such as this is deemed as necessary so audiences don't get wise (e.g. Memento). Sadly, both of these are true of Basic, but what's truly infuriating is its total disdain for the people who've paid perfectly good money to sit through it. The film is nothing more than a shoddy compilation of numerous (and seemingly endless) anti-climaxes every fifteen minutes or so; whatever information is relayed to you may be relevant within a very small patch of the running time but is in turn irrelevant to the next fifteen minutes following it. In its dogged determination to "pull the rug out from under you" throughout, the film cancels itself out within about forty-five minutes because you find yourself having absolutely no stake in how the story is ultimately going to turn out because neither the characters nor the incidents mean anything to you the way they should in a good tale of fiction. Investing the mental efforts of concentration and retention into Basic proves futile in light of the Byzantine plot turns which are never really rooted in anything but solipsistic hodgepodge -- the filmmakers are having a kick in callously fucking with you for the sole sake of doing so, and being that they don't play fair by failing to provide relevant clues that would enable you to fasten upon and use them to figure out the developments before they're revealed, you're left with the laughable impression that they feel the intellectually superior ones for blind-sidedly one-upping you even though they're doing so on a one-team playing field. (It wouldn't be too far off the mark in accusing both the cast and crew of indulging in an eighty-nine-minute circle jerk.) Packaged as both a thriller and a whodunit, the film is too erratically plotted to create much in the way of sustaining tension, and far too incomprehensible, so it comes off more like a whythehellwhodundat.

With a horrid screenplay by first-timer James Vanderbilt to work from, maybe it's not too surprising that McTiernan's direction here is lackluster. He doesn't seem to have been particularly revved up during the production phase judging by the minimum-wage averageness to the staging and the rag-tag attempts at visual style (the usage of color gels in some of the backgrounds of the interiors is just tacky). Mind you, McTiernan had quite a task in installing both fluidity and agility to the subtext-less talking-heads scenes, succeeding with the former but fowling up with the latter -- the juxtaposing of the flashbacks is flat-out unremarkable -- but, along with the mediocre efforts of editor George Foley, Jr. (Bulletproof) and cinematographer Steve Mason (Rollerball), he hasn't even managed to come up with any good action sequences from the jungle interludes -- they're awkwardly cut and murky-looking, with such ill-defined spatial logistics that it's sometimes hard to make out who's shooting at whom and where they are in relation to one another. (This is no Predator). Where is the graceful assuredness this masterful director brought to that brilliantly edited briefcase-switch sequence inside a museum in The Thomas Crown Affair? The sly humor in Die Hard where a SWAT officer yelps in pain when his finger gets pricked by a rose bush while rushing up to the Nakatomi building? The awesome-though-appropriate sense of majestic scale of a submarine explosively breaking the surface in The Hunt for Red October? When you get right down to it, the screenplay would do just about any director in, because it basically exempts itself from interpretation; a visionary artist couldn't apply anything to it but camerabatics, not thought, because it's so chock-full of plottiness, and is so reliant on this to carry the show, that adding extra dimensions to the pawns masquerading as characters would be for moot, as would attempting to allow any ironies to vibrate a little, because, um, there aren't any (which is quite a feat for a military film with subplots involving homosexuality, racism, corruption, and greed). Vanderbilt's screenplay is like a senior-theme paper with nothing but facts and absolutely nothing of personal insight.

This is the kind of film where one soldier tells an interrogator one thing, and another soldier gives a completely different story, and the interrogator has to figure out which is true or whether neither is true, and then, even when the solution to that is arrived at (or is it?), somebody else gets caught up in a lie (or maybe it's not), and this whole deductive process starts back up all over again, and the audience feels as beat-out as a last-minute shopper at a crowded mall on Christmas Eve night. For viewers who found comfort and read brilliance into two films that mistook complicated plotting for complexity, The Usual Suspects and Memento, then maybe Basic will be right up your alley; but for those who need characters to emotionally invest in and story lines that needn't be peppered with a hundred different twists and turns, look elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the actors are of little help. Samuel L. Jackson bulges his eyes a lot and overacts. Tim Daly is good-natured but pallid in a cypher of a role. Connie Nielsen (who was so magnetic in Gladiator) is one-note and sullen, as if she'd just wandered in from a Bergman film. Giovanni Ribisi, as the second surviving soldier, and Harry Connick, Jr., as a shady doctor, are both so horrendously bad they should have been charged with impersonating an actor. Only Brian Van Holt, who's quietly commanding and quite charismatic, manages to come through. That leaves John Travolta. Like McTiernan, here is a supremely gifted artist of such talent you wish him to succeed with each and every film outing. But his post-Get Shorty choices have been iffy, with some passable (Lucky Numbers, Domestic Disturbance), some inadequate (A Civil Action, Primary Colors), and some just flat-out bad (Battlefield Earth, Swordfish). In Basic, he's certainly energetic and alert, but it's an easy, autopilot performance. Travolta's playing a showoff, a man whose opinion of women is considerably less than his high opinion of himself, but his work doesn't have the kind of shading and variety you'd expect from an actor of his caliber. It's rumored that Travolta's high salary demands are putting him at odds with studio heads who're balking that he hasn't had a box-office smash in a while; with more duds like Basic, and he'll be treated as much the fool as the audience member whom this despicable film treats as. Poetic justice, if you ask me.

It's worse than "Battlefield Earth".

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7382&reviewer=327
originally posted: 04/15/03 04:06:55
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell full of twists that dont make much sense 2 stars
12/22/10 Sean M Preposterous to the nth, but more energy than most and a vintage unhinged Travolta perf. 3 stars
11/29/10 mr.mike Dreadful. Why was Ribisi trying to channel Nick Cage? 2 stars
9/26/08 Shaun Wallner Great Action!! 5 stars
8/03/08 HateMuch? Pretty Good Movie. What's with the Reviewer's gay-fantasy for Travolta? 4 stars
8/16/06 Eric Rountree Good acting and a believable story 4 stars
5/17/06 chris f basic shite 1 stars
4/02/06 Dillon Underrated military mystery. Fun times 4 stars
3/11/06 Dillon Underrated mystery thriller. Fast paced and unpredictable 4 stars
8/19/05 Sherman A bag of...cliches- Like aformation running by every 3 mins! 1 stars
8/16/05 ES didn't I see this when it was called the General's Daughter? 1 stars
8/12/05 R.W. Welch Seriously overplotted and entirely unconvincing. 2 stars
6/22/05 Steve Newman I go against all the critics on Bitchslap - I loved it 5 stars
1/02/05 Doremimi The entire thing was hard to watch, but the worst was Nielsen's pathetic "southern" accent. 1 stars
9/23/04 Bill Good Show Reckon most that didnt like it are the sort that always see the twist coming but 4 stars
9/14/04 Sully simply retarded - ending was ludicrious - sucked monkey balls 1 stars
9/02/04 Nut lots of twists, hard to follow, ridiculous ending that is so not believable 4 stars
5/14/04 Stuart ridiculous ending - would rather watch paint dry 2 stars
5/06/04 J.Peckerfoot great film with story retold by different people to throw us off.crackin! 4 stars
5/06/04 Bobby Fisher who would not understand the twists... only a yogurt!! 5 stars
4/01/04 Tito Refer to the title. 1 stars
3/04/04 Joe Came here to try to figure out the plot. Still no comprehension. Not gonna watch it again. 2 stars
2/09/04 Whatevr Like "Rashomon," only it sucks ass! 1 stars
12/07/03 john pointlessly complicated - has about ten flashbacks that as it turns out never happened 1 stars
11/23/03 adrian GREAT movie!! i guess if it was full of explosions and death you guys would love it huh?? 5 stars
11/01/03 Jenna Furr RIGHT Sylvie! Made me miss Ashley J. too. There, I said it. Gotta go change my panties now. 1 stars
9/16/03 Sylvie Alice Borden So many twist endings you forget what it was about. Where's Ashley Judd when we need her? 1 stars
9/10/03 Alisha OMG! What a load of crap someone dumped in a toilet and decided to make it into a movie! 1 stars
8/28/03 Chris Too many stupid turns which make no sense 1 stars
7/15/03 Shawn A movie that made you think to much, but I thought it was pretty good. 4 stars
6/27/03 Yappie Huh? 1 stars
6/26/03 Dr. Jake Jack WHAT THE FUCK!? 1 stars
6/17/03 Jackie One of this year's worse 1 stars
6/14/03 Eschenennock Manville Worse than BATTLEFIELD EARTH? Not quite THAT bad, Jack Sommersby! 1 stars
6/12/03 Jerry OH, SWEET JESUS!!!!!!! 1 stars
6/12/03 Julia Cox OD-ing on twist endings! Is it the cinematic wave of the future (Groan, groan!)? 1 stars
6/12/03 Sylvie Alice Borden So many twist endings you for get what it was about. Where's Ashley Judd when we need her? 1 stars
6/11/03 Rocky No!! NOOOOOO!!!!!!!! 1 stars
6/10/03 Jodie Solomon Could not understand anything. what was the ending all about. What does section 8 do? 2 stars
6/09/03 Ronald The people who likes this can go to hell! 1 stars
5/27/03 aiken drum All the twists are shit and you come out of the theatre going that was Fucking stupid. 1 stars
5/21/03 Jake Im with you guys 1 stars
5/21/03 Christy Chandler You would get more pleasure from flushing $10 down the toilet. 1 stars
4/17/03 KingNeutron Too confusing, but my goodness - Connie Nielsen has great legs!! 2 stars
4/16/03 Obi Wan Shoul get about 4 Raspberries 1 stars
4/06/03 Territ I thought I was missing the logic. I wasn't. 2 stars
4/05/03 Rich Stabone Sucky movie 1 stars
4/04/03 poetchuck Its a movie, suspend disbelief and enjoy it 4 stars
4/02/03 Uncle Salty Hello, my name is Samuel Jackson. I play the same character in every movie. Enjoy. 1 stars
4/02/03 Vince I was drunk when i saw this, but i could still tell that it was a piece of shit. 1 stars
4/02/03 daphney whatever 5 stars
4/01/03 Dr. Bitterpants Do you know what they call a "loser" in Amsterdam? "Le Travolta with Cheese." 1 stars
4/01/03 Todd Travolta is to movies, what teeth is to penis. 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  28-Mar-2003 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  29-May-2003




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