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When the feared and hated commando Sgt Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson) and other elite Special Forces trainees disappear during a military exercise in a hurricane amidst the jungle of Panama, ex-Amy Ranger turned DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta) is recruited to investigate and assist head of Fort Clayton’s military police Capt Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen). But nothing is as it seems and the contradicting testimonies of Raymond Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) and Levi Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) add to the confusion. And as Hardy begins to scratch below the surface, it is clear that there is much more at stake.

Review by Louise Keller:
A rip-roaring, intense psychological thriller, Basic is a dizzying and complex murder investigation that digs deeply and tenaciously to seek out the truth. There are many versions of the truth (my version, yours - and the real thing), and in this multi-layered and at times confusing story set on a military base, we are constantly on edge and dazzled by the many twists and turns that relentlessly are flung our way. 

John McTiernan (Die Hard) expertly creates apprehension, using all elements available including Steve Mason’s intense cinematography, a resounding music score and the tempestuous weather that never abates. The opening sequence in which we briefly meet the trainees in hurricane conditions in the wilds of Panama, gives no detail, but leaves us with an impression. It’s pretty tough going out there, and there is no shortage of conflict between the men. As we learn what happened (from differing points of view), it’s easy to become confused. After all, the characters have not been firmly established, and it is hard to differentiate between the mud-splattered men in the dark, stormy conditions. 

But these confusions are swept away in the second half and the pieces of the jigsaw start to fit, as revelation upon revelation propels us into an extraordinary twist of affairs. While Basic is a tense drama, the big surprise is that there is unexpected humour in both the characters and the action. John Travolta gives a splendid turn as the ex-Army ranger whose tactics are nothing short of unsettling. Travolta is in fine shape following a vigorous three-month long fitness campaign, but the thrills really come from the mental gymnastics. 

There’s tension between all the characters: the cumulative result is that we are constantly uneasy. Connie Nielsen plays the rookie who goes by the book, and through whose eyes we learn the truth. She plays straight man to Travolta’s showy wild card, and the combination works well. All the cast is excellent with Giovanni Ribisi haunting as the whingeing, effeminate soldier, and Samuel L. Jackson forceful as the tyrannical, hated commando. I also like Harry Connick Jnr in his small but pivotal role. Everyone has a secret and it’s not until we dig deeper and deeper that we begin to realise the extent of the secrets hidden. The balance shifts as suspicion moves from one character to another, but nothing prepares us for the final outcome. The payoff is substantial, but you will need to persevere and concentrate. If you like your thrillers dense, challenging and full of surprises, Basic fits the bill.

High tech menus offer a choice of some substantial special features, including John McTiernan’s no-nonsense commentary, a feature from the writer’s perspective, and a behind the scene feature called Director’s design. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt explains that although Basic appears to be an action movie, it is in fact a military thriller. He talks about the structure of the script, the research and John Travolta’s central character being an a-typical movie hero. In the Director’s Design feature, John McTiernan, producer Mike Medavoy, cast members John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Harry Connick Jnr and Brian Van Holt talk about the film, the characters and the experience. ‘The most fun was putting John and Connie against one another – like taking two cats and putting them into a dark closet and shutting the door,’ says McTiernan. Highlight is the director’s commentary – as a top action director, McTiernan has plenty of interest to say, although it is interesting to note he doesn’t speak for the sake of it, but only talks when he has something to say.

Published November 13, 2003

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CAST: John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi, Brian Van Holt, Taye Diggs, Cristian De La Fuente, Dash Mihok, Tim Daly, Roselyn Sanchez, Harry Connick Jr

DIRECTOR: John McTiernan

SCRIPT: James Vanderbilt

PRESENTATION: Dolby 5.1 surround sound; Dolby 2.0 stereo; widescreen presentation;

SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary with director John McTiernan; Director’s Design featurette; a writer’s perspective, trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: November 12, 2003

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