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In the feverish promotion for various films you often see the term “more twists than a bag of pretzels” plastered over television ads and movie posters. Firstly, that quote has probably come from a quote-whore whose only goal is to make it in print on said movie poster, and secondly the whole twist thing is only fun if it’s done with a little bit of common sense.

Cast your mind back to The Usual Suspects, a film that hangs its hat on a single twist in the plotline in the final scene. What is revealed to the audience links in perfectly with what they have just seen in the previous ninety minutes, shedding light on the mystery by treading down a path no one had even thought about. The only reason it works is because the twist follows some sort of logic. It’s all well and good twisting the story around to maintain the interest, but when you decide to throw them in all over the place in an attempt to make things interesting you know you’re in trouble.

Enter Basic, possibly the “twistiest” film ever made, which definitely doesn’t necessarily translate into something that works. It’s ironic that the film’s title is pretty much the complete opposite of the storyline, which is as far from basic as you’re ever gonna get.

Basic
Movie
The nuts and bolts of the film surround DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta playing versions of about five of his previous characters), called in to investigate a rather mysterious and bloody training exercise gone wrong out in the jungle. The men involved consist of hard-nosed leader Sergeant Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), who died in the rain-soaked skirmish along with several others, and survivors Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi sporting a ridiculous “hospital” voice) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt, an uncanny resemblance to Shane West).

It’s clear from the outset that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Perfect for the script writers to throw a few curveballs in here and there. The problem is they’ve thrown more curveballs than Rick Vaughn threw fastballs. Hardy has been introduced despite being under investigation for bribery (or something like that), much to the chagrin of Lieutenant Julia Osborne (Connie Nielson), who wants to play it her way and get all the credit, the little independent girl she is.

Mentioning any more about the plot will reveal crucial points in the story prematurely. Not that it matters because the film will just twist another way within minutes and you’ll forget what came before it. It should really be re-named Bizarre because once you’re done with it you’ll be left scratching your head for all the wrong reasons. One of Travolta’s “cool” lines reads something like “am I scratching your surface?” Mate, I’m scratching my own surface only because I’m trying to figure out what the hell is going on and how it could possibly make any sense if you really think about it.

Some films with interesting plot lines are picked to pieces by wannabe film experts just for the sake of it (read Minority Report and the like), which in most cases is just downright picky about things. Finding out the holes in this film is beyond picky because it’s almost expected as you revisit some of the twists which make most of the previous action completely redundant.

For arguments sake I’ll pick out a couple of small anomalies in the film for fear of exposing the surprises by mentioning the larger ones. Firstly, Connie Nielson might be really cute and she might be a darn good actress, but whoever taught her to speak should be shot. Her gritty Lieutenant is reduced to a very womanly growl which is downright laughable. The same goes for Roselyn Sanchez’s fiery soldier, her face hidden behind a helmet four sizes too big and the darkness of the big, scary jungle. Heck, alphabet soup makes more sense than she does. If anyone can decipher any of her lines in the film (swear words excluded) feel free to drop us a line.

The constantly switching story might provide the only real positive to the film in that you’ll get sucked in pretty early and want to know the reality of what happened that night out in the jungle. The journey to the end isn’t all that coherent and you’ll end up caring less about the characters as you go along but at least you won’t be bored in any shape or form. If anything the replay value is improved by virtue of the fact you’ll probably want to go back and pick out all the things that don’t make sense now that you have this newly acquired information.

Basic
Director John McTiernan has continued his downward spiral into mediocrity by giving us a half-baked script, actors who are just coasting through for the duration (my guess is Jackson never bothered with rehearsal because he didn’t need to) and a story that resembles a dog who ends up dizzy after chasing its tail for half an hour. Poor John can rest assured audiences will remember the double bill of Basic and Rollerball well before past hits such as Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October. You’re only as good as your last movie, John, and at the moment you kinda suck.

Video
The 2.40:1, 16:9 enhanced visuals look quite good on the whole, though our brains won’t register just how good they look the first time around as we’re trying to figure the whole thing out. The clean print and above average sharpness give the film a very slick look overall, especially in the scenes outside of the jungle. The jungle scenes themselves aren’t helped by the fact John McTiernan decided to shoot under nothing but moonlight (or so it seems), so the tricky bits of the jungle are kind of lost in the darkness, deep as it may be.

The colours themselves, mainly a “military” palette of greens and browns, are actually quite impressive, with no complaints about aliasing or edge enhancement at all. I’d call this a pretty darn good visual presentation overall.

Audio
Hurricanes are great. Not only do they provide a really cool setting for people to get killed, they also give us something to test our home theatre gear out. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track included on the disc sure gets a workout, if only really during the jungle scenes shown in flashback. One of the promotional logos at the beginning of the film will make you jump because it sets the tone for the rest of the flick.

Surround usage is great, with all the rain, gunshots and thunder belting around the rears with ear-pounding regularity. The sub-woofer will enjoy being put through its paces and if you don’t have one then now is the time to put those savings to good use. The non-combat scenes are still quite impressive, with the clear dialogue mixed in with front-surround use and ambient effects, along with the score, filling up the rears. In all you can’t really falter this track too much save for an annoying increase in volume between the conversations and the combat. But that’s only a minor quibble.

Basic
Extras
There are a few extras to keep you happy, possibly in the hope of making some sense of the film you’ve just seen. First up is a commentary track with none other than McTiernan himself. This track will render you as sleepy as McTiernan comes across throughout what should have been some sort of explanation as to the motivation behind the madness. All the director can offer is a few grunts about the locations and actors as well as indulging himself in what he thinks are clever “clues” situated throughout the film, which are nothing more than bits and pieces you would never pick up on in a million years. Drink some more coffee next time, John.

The Director’s Design featurette is actually quite funny for all the wrong reasons. How can you make a coherent film when the screenwriter, producer, director, editor and seemingly everyone else involved can’t make up their collective minds on just what genre the film is even remotely close to? The interviews and clips from behind the scenes are a touch above the standard fare but overall it just smacks of the whole crew thinking they’re just far too clever than they actually are.

The Screenwriter’s Perspective shows us just how much of a kid writer James Vanderbilt really is and how he is probably way out of his depth with this one. The featurette is actually quite entertaining but a lot of it is just because it’s all so stupid. Vanderbilt reads passages from the script, admits he went through re-writes when people pointed out the wholes (seems like he didn’t have enough of those conversations) and freely admits where he made stuff up as if he’s some creative genius.

Rounding out this small bunch of extras is the rather slick theatrical trailer, which actually seems quite enticing despite using the “nothing is what it seems” cliché once again.

Basic
Overall
A man named Art Linson wrote a book about film called “What Just Happened?” I haven’t read it, but one suggests there will be a lengthy chapter on this film in there somewhere. Cohesion and common sense make way for twists and nonsense in what could have been a half decent military suspense movie but just ends up looking like a poor man’s Courage Under Fire and completely undeserving of the parallels between it and Rashomon. The disc itself sports an impressive AV presentation, though the extras aren’t really worth your time.


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