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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Basic (2003)

* 1/2

Director: John McTiernan
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen

I'll give Basic this much: it lives up to its title. It's so basic that it appears not to have been developed beyond its very ideas for the plot and the characters, let alone beyond the first draft of the screenplay. Basic is the cinematic equivalent of a kid who gets to school and realizes that he has a project due, so he throws something together in the five minutes before the bell rings just to have something to hand in. It's bad. It's not even bad in the "so bad, it's entertaining" way. It's bad in the "so bad it's a total waste of time" way. But thanks to the new algorithm launched by Netflix, it was recommended for me with an 90% match - which isn't to say that Netflix hasn't always recommended bad movies for me, it's just that it used to recommend movies even as it acknowledged that it didn't think I would rate them highly. Anyway, on with the show:

Set in Panama, Basic is a mystery/investigative procedural story centering on a team of Army Rangers, most of whom end up dead during a training exercise in the jungle. Only two emerge alive - Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), the latter of whom has been shot and is taken to hospital in critical condition - and because of a hurricane the bodies of the rest, including their Master Sergeant, Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), have yet to be recovered. Dunbar refuses to talk to anyone except a fellow Ranger about what happened, prompting the base's commander (Timothy Daly) to call in ex-Ranger Tom Hardy (John Travolta) to take over the interrogation from Military Police investigator Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen). Osborne objects to Hardy being brought in - it's against protocol! - but Hardy quickly starts getting the job done, getting a story out of Kendall about West's sadism, his targeting of a Ranger named Pike (Taye Diggs), and a series of fatal decisions which resulted in Dunbar carrying him through the jungle while exchanging fire with fellow Ranger Mueller (Dash Mihok), then getting a slightly different story out of Dunbar, like this is Rashomon, if Rashomon was stupid.

There's not much of a story to Basic, and you realize that there was even less than there seemed to be once you get to the end and the narrative house of cards that it has propped up on "twists" collapses. These twists, which are so numerous that by the film's final third one seems to come at the close of each and every scene, are so flimsy and ill-thought out that each one seems to exist in its own universe separate and apart from the rest of the narrative. Normally I wouldn't take the time to enumerate all of the surprise turns of the plot, both because of spoilers (not that I think you can "spoil" a 14 year old movie) and because what a movie is about is less important than how it is about it, but I think the only way to really capture the "well why don't we try this, then?" attitude of the film is to go through all of the contortions it subjects itself to in an attempt to distract you from how little there is to it by keeping you guessing:
* Hardy and Osborne question Kendall, who tells them that Pike killed West with a phosphorus grenade. He also reveals his belief that West was going to use the exercise as a means of arranging for Kendall to have a "training accident" to punish him for being gay. Hardy and Osborne point out that by telling them that, he's just provided a motive for why he would want to kill West. Feel free to forget that, since it never comes up again.

* Hardy and Osborne question Dunbar, who claims that West was shot to death, that Mueller was the culprit and tried to frame Pike, and that the reason Mueller took out West is that he and Kendall had secretly been selling prescription drugs around the base and West had found out. Dunbar claims that Dr. Vilmer - who happens to be Hardy's friend and Osborne's ex-lover - was the supplier of the drugs, a crime to which Vilmer ultimately confesses.

* Kendall dies in the hospital, but not before tracing an "8" on Osborne's palm, which leads Hardy to tell her about "Section 8," a group of ex-Rangers trained by West who became drug dealers. They're called Section 8 because they're "crazy."

* The base commander closes the investigation and orders Dunbar and Vilmer to be transported to Washington, but before he's taken to the plane Vilmer reveals that Dunbar is actually Pike. The movie insists that this deception is possible because Pike switched dog-tags with the dead Dunbar. In order to believe this, you have to believe that no one on the base knew either Dunbar or Pike (and it's not like you could mistake one for the other, since one is played by Taye Diggs and the other by Brian Van Holt), and that the military wouldn't have, you know, a file on the man they're holding for interrogation which might contain a photo and/or physical description of the person in question. You also have to wonder why Kendall, in his first interview, would provide information giving himself a motive but wouldn't say something along the lines of, "Hey, that guy claiming to be Dunbar? He's really Pike. He did everything; if he wasn't guilty he wouldn't be trying to steal someone else's identity." The only conceivable reason he doesn't say something like that is that, if he did, the movie would only be about 40 minutes long.

* The man now revealed as Pike then claims that the drugs West found out about weren't prescription pills, but cocaine that was being smuggled back to the States in military cargo. In this version of events, Pike not only does not kill West, but tries to save him from being killed by Mueller. He tells Hardy and Osborne where they can find the cocaine that Vilmer has stowed.

* The case is closed! Again! So Hardy goes to talk to the base commander, tricks him into admitting to having poisoned Kendall, and then to having been the mastermind behind the smuggling operation. When West discovered the smuggling and reported it to him, he ordered Mueller and Kendall to murder West during the exercise - an exercise that West put together last minute because the oncoming hurricane would provide suitably rough conditions to test the Rangers and which comes a week after West reported Mueller and Kendall's misdeeds. So to buy this, you have to believe that the commander was able to coordinate with Mueller and Kendall to throw together a plan on short notice, and you have to believe that West wouldn't be at all curious about why these two Rangers, who ought to be in military prison for trafficking, are still under his command. Anyway, the commander tries to bribe Hardy and then tries to kill him, but Osborne just happens by in time to pull the trigger first, killing the commander and saving Hardy.

* Case closed! Again! But! As they're taking their leave from one another, Hardy uses a turn of phrase that came up in both Kendall and Pike/Dunbar's recounting of what happened in the jungle. Osborne remembers that Hardy, who was once a Ranger under West's command, claimed to hate West. He was part of it! She then sees Pike/Dunbar climbing into a car and driving off with Hardy. She follows them into Panama City and into a building where above the door, I shit you not, is a giant eight ball. Hardy and Pike/Dunbar are Section 8, they're the ones behind West's death and the smuggling and have let the base commander, Mueller, and Kendall, all now dead, take the fall (even though none of that accords with the conversation that Hardy and the base commander just had).

* But don't worry, most of that isn't even actually the case. Yes, Hardy and Pike/Dunbar are Section 8 but so is... West, who is totally not dead and faked his death (with Hardy's help) in the jungle because he knew that the base commander was going to try to have him killed. You know who else isn't dead? The real Dunbar. Who is also Section 8. Also Castro (Cristian de la Fuente) and Nunez (Roselyn Sanchez), two of the Rangers who were killed during the firefight in the jungle, are also not dead and are members of Section 8. So basically everyone under West's command except Mueller and Kendall were actually Section 8, which is not a cartel but is actually a black ops anti-drug unit of the military, and Hardy's interactions with Pike/Dunbar from earlier in the film, which includes a scene where he comes this close to pushing Pike/Dunbar's face into the moving propellers of a plane, were just theater for Osborne's sake... for some reason. That's the last twist, unless there was an after-credits scene that I didn't watch.

Basic is a very stupid movie that packs itself full of "shocking" turns in an attempt to mask the fact that there's nothing there. It is so badly written that early in the film Hardy says that the military isn't going to stand by and allow him to work the case, "Not with my colorful past." That is not dialogue; that is what someone says when they're trying to pitch a movie - it's about a guy with a colorful past, who doesn't play by the rules, but is the only man who can get the job done. Fortunately the film has such terrible sound mixing that you can't hear most of the dialogue, though that won't save you from the couple of scenes where Travolta and Nielsen engage in the worst example of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith-ing" I've ever seen. The best thing I can say about Basic is that it's only 98 minutes, and it was raining outside anyway, so.

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