Sometimes films can be too cute, or clever for their own good. They have an idea, a good one, and then they begin twisting and turning it in different directions. There are those out there who know of such movies and think they are the greatest thing since Citizen Kane (1941). Look, it is hard enough to make a movie that makes sense. Occasionally, it is better to keep things simple. This works best in action films. With Basic (2003) you have a film that has bit of action, but also tries to be clever. Luckily, it does not get too clever for its own good.
Basic opens with a brief history of the Panama Canal Zone, narrated by Captain Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen). Apparently, the deadly nature of the area while the waterway was being built has been continued in modern times as we see a military helicopter carry a group of soldiers into the Panamanian jungle. Of course, it does not help that they are doing so in the middle of a hurricane. They are being led by Master Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), whose idea it is to have a training exercise in the middle of a raging tropical storm. After a cut, we see the aftermath of this jaunt, with one of the soldiers carrying one of his wounded comrades and shooting at another. Master Sergeant West is nowhere to be seen. This soldier is Sergeant Ray Dunbar (Brian Van Holt), and as essentially the only man left standing, he is the one Captain Osborne is called in to question. She does so because she is part of the Military Police, and she is investigating what appears to be a murder mystery. However, the commanding officer of the base, Colonel Bill Styles (Tim Daly), thinks Captain Osborne needs help, and calls in a friend and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, Tom Hardy (John Travolta), to assist with the inquires. Captain Osborne is not thrilled by having non-military personnel involved, though this is soothed somewhat when it is revealed that Hardy was once a U.S. Army Ranger. He also has personal knowledge of the case because he once served under Master Sergeant West. This proves critical because during their interrogations of Sergeant Dunbar and the man he carried out, Second Lieutenant Levi Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi), it emerges that Master Sergeant West is the main instigator in this incident. Everyone, including Hardy, thinks that Master Sergeant West is too harsh, to say the least. Through other moments in their training, each of the soldiers have their own difficulties with Master Sergeant West. Through the yarns spun by Sergeant Dunbar and Second Lieutenant Kendall, we see the same sequence of events told in different ways whenever a new bit of information is brought to light. Whatever the case, each version of the events seemed to suggest that Master Sergeant West was killed, and that the remaining squad differed on what to do about it. Another bit of news that is admitted to is the fact that drugs are being used by soldiers on the base, a blend of stimulants concocted by base physician Dr. Peter Vilmer (Harry Connick Jr.). Between the drugs and the purported death of Master Sergeant West, it seems understandable that each one of the surviving witnesses to what happened in the jungle would be changing their stories. Each time they switch it up, though, something else is revealed. Eventually, all roads lead to Colonel Styles, who is running a veritable cartel out of a United States military base. He basically admits this to Hardy after Sergeant Dunbar (or Pike, that changes too) gives his last testimony implicating Second Lieutenant Kendall and others in the squad as being part of a mysterious group known as Section 8. Colonel Styles attempts to bribe Hardy into being a part of the illicit activities, but when the DEA agent refuses Colonel Styles attempts to murder him. Hardy is saved by Captain Osborne. Thinking things are finally settled, they go their separate ways. Yet, as they depart, something Hardy says makes her follow him. As she does, it leads her to a local restaurant where the majority of the supposedly dead squad, along with Sergeant Dunbar who had been picked up by Hardy, are gathered. The whole film had basically been a dog and pony show in order to get Captain Osborne to join Colonel Hardy’s (another switch) covert organization.
Even though the ending of Basic means that most of what you see did not actually happen, it is interesting to see the plot twist and turn as it does. Still, it is uncomfortable to know that most of the people you see in the film are lying in some form or another. Yes, this is me being a square Catholic. I like to root for my protagonists, and hence Captain Osborne is probably the most sympathetic character in the film. It certainly is not Hardy. Aside from the fact that he is the head of the actual Section 8, and its mission is left unclear, he also appears to be a bit of misogynist. If it was more apparent what it is that he is trying to accomplish, I might have felt better about his character. Still, even Captain Osborne is not perfect, as she apparently had been carrying on a casual sexual relationship with Dr. Vilmer. My Catholic movie brain is tired of cinematic anti-heroes. The film itself is a solid one, if convoluted, I just want better characters.
I give a full, if not enthusiastic, recommendation for Basic. It is violent and vulgar, so I would not show it to children. Still, if you watch it as a murder mystery, it works. The plot twists do not get too cute, and as such they keep the story interesting.