Film Reviews

BASIC

By • Mar 28th, 2003 •

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There’s nothing as effective as a clever non-verbal visual to set the tone of a film. We first hear John Travolta singing in a seedy Panama hotel bathtub shower. He pulls away the curtain and barely drapes a towel around his still fleshy, but 25 pounds trimmer, body. (It’s Travolta’s Kathy Bates moment.) Grabbing a beer, he confidently sashays to the balcony and chats up the working girls. Its clear the movie is going to be all about John seducing us.

Travolta trained with the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Columbus, Georgia for his role as an Army Ranger-turned DEA agent in BASIC, John McTiernan’s rain soaked, highly enjoyable thriller. Tom Hardy (Travolta), rogue ex-soldier and unconventional interrogator, is called on by an old friend, Army base commander Styles (Timothy Daly) to find out what happened to legendary Army Ranger drill instructor Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson). West’s elite cadets were on an “inspired” training exercise held during a raging hurricane. Only two soldiers, Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), the gay son of a Joint Chiefs of Staff official, and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) have returned. Styles couldn’t get Dunbar to talk, so he called on Hardy, whose interrogation technique is equally legendary.

We see during flashbacks that West, Hardy’s former teacher, was a tough, meanspirited bastard. Was he fragged, or did he trip over his own rain-soaked weapon? Who killed the other guys? As she was in THE HUNTED, Connie Nielsen is not only miscast as military police Captain Julia Osborne, she nearly ruins the movie. Reed thin and going in and out of a variety of weird accents, Nielsen can’t find her footing. Get this! At 100 pounds, she has a fight scene with John!

Travolta flirts up a storm with everyone, but Nielsen not only doesn’t react, she’s confused. Under the circumstances presented in the movie, her character would not show confusion. If Nielsen was playing her role properly – instead of being intimated by John Travolta – she would have acted with disdain and been condescending to Hardy. After all, Hardy is under suspicion for unethical activities. McTiernan may have let Nielsen’s accent run wild, but Giovanni Ribisi’s voice has strangely matured (or morphed in post-production) into a deep baritone. Ribisi is the only actor who recognizes that his character is the star of his own life-movie and that, rightly so, Kendall is being bothered by the interloping investigator.

Travolta’s is demonstrably a vainglorious performance, but one that is so delicious it’s hypnotic. You can’t take your eyes off him. He primps, he poses, he reclines, he smokes. He’s the posturing star of the movie and Hardy is written precisely to exploit Travolta’s delightful grasp of this. Travolta doesn’t bother to act with anyone. He’s performing and the other actors just stand near him and give him their lines. Nielsen has the most trouble working alone.

Putting Travolta’s diva-like press aside, McTiernan situates his star in pounding rain at every opportunity. It could not have been an easy few months on location for a demanding primadonna. McTiernan does love his star, and Travolta eats every line of dialogue with gusto. Jackson, no slouch at holding the screen, is Travolta’s match. If Travolta is going to playfully pounce on scenes, he will as well. Jackson doesn’t have a nude scene, but he does spit his lines and chews up as much scenery as he can.

The story doubles up, backs up and twists and turns. It will take another viewing to see if the story holds up or stumbles apace to its “fooled-you” ending. I might be all wet on this one, but I bet it holds up.


Cast:
Hardy: John Travolta
Osborne: Connie Nielsen
West: Samuel L Jackson
Styles: Tim Daly
Kendall: Giovanni Ribisi
Dunbar: Brian Van Holt
Pike: Taye Diggs
Mueller: Dash Mihok
Nunez: Roselyn Sanchez
Castro: Cristian de la Feunte
Pete: Harry Connick, Jr

Credits:
Director: John McTiernan
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnie Messer, James Vanderbilt, Michael Tadross
Executive Producers: Moritz Borman, Nigel Sinclair, Basil Iwanyk, Jonathan Krane
Director of photography: Steve Mason
Production designer: Dennis Bradford
Music: Klaus Badelt
Co-producers: Andy Given, Louis Philips
Costume designer: Kate Harrington
Editor: George Folsey Jr

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