Basic (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Major spoilers:

An elite U.S. special forces unit undertakes a disastrous mission in Panama. Of the seven men and women in the squad, only two return, and one of them is fatally wounded. An investigation is initiated. The healthy member of the team is being interrogated by the base investigator in Panama (Connie Nielsen), but will not talk unless he can speak with a fellow Ranger. It so happens that the base commander has a buddy in Panama who is an ex-Ranger (John Travolta), and that guy agrees to assist in the investigation.

As Travolta and the local investigator interview the healthy Ranger, the dying Ranger, and the local medic (who was involved), they cannot seem to  unravel the complex story of a local drug operation. Everyone who tells the story repeats a different version of it, ala Roshomon, the stories are in such dramatic conflict that it is not possible to determine the truth.

"Basic" contains the core of a good movie, a twisty tale of illusion and reality, a complicated sting in which almost all the details are hidden from the audience until the proper time. It has a great cast and crew. In addition to Travolta and Nielsen, it stars Giovanni Ribisi, Taye Diggs, and Samuel L. It looks great on paper. How can you go wrong with Samuel L Jackson being directed by the guy who did "Die Hard"? In fact, the film actually scores a respectable 6.1 at IMDb, but many critics totally despised it. Roger Ebert gave it one star, and many others were equally harsh. Audiences were indifferent. The film was only the third highest opener of its own week, and the total domestic gross was a mediocre $26 million.

The problem with the film, the reason it irritated so many people, is that it went way over the top in needless complexity and deception. It became so complex, in fact, that I couldn't piece together the entire solution logically even after all the smoke was clear and every mirror was removed. Since many characters were pretending to be what they were not, and every person except the local investigator was something other than what we originally assumed, some of the interrogations assumed so many levels of artificiality as to be indecipherable. That removed a lot of the pleasure from the ultimate revelations, because the audience was left thinking, "What the ... ? But, if ..."


there is one anonymous topless reveler in the streets of Panama City

For example:

1. At one point John Travolta is interviewing the healthy surviving Ranger. But Travolta is not who he seems to be, the healthy Ranger is not who he seems to be, and in fact they are working together. If so, why are they carrying on the charade? We presume it must be for the benefit of the local investigator, who is the only other person in the room. Only one problem with that theory. Travolta didn't want her in the room in the first place. She insisted on accompanying him. 

2. At one point the dying Ranger gives the local investigator a sign that the botched operation was a result of some action by a top secret group called Section 8. Again, only one problem. Reviewing the movie in retrospect, there is no way that soldier could have known about the group which Section 8 turned out to be! He could have known about the drug-dealing group, since he was part of it, and at that point, the local investigator (and we in the audience) thinks Section 8 is the drug dealers, so the plot twist seemed to make sense at that moment. But the fact of the matter is, that the local investigator was wrong. That soldier could have known about the group that she incorrectly assumed to have been Section 8, but not about the group that really was Section 8. (The good guys who were sent to bust up the drug ring.)

3. Travolta only survives to the end of the film because Connie Nielsen shoots the drug mastermind. Travolta had turned his back on the guy, and was walking away. The drug lord was about to pump ol' Barbarino full of lead when Nielsen intervened. Again, only one problem. It couldn't have been part of his master plan, because Travolta didn't know that Nielsen was there. (Remember that Nielsen didn't know about either the secret drug cabal or the secret undercover good guys). Therefore, Travolta should have died right then and there, and the bad guys should have won, except for a completely lucky break. Once again, it seemed to be a reasonable (if contrived) plot twist at the time it happened, but proved to be a major logical flaw when everyone's true nature was revealed.

Well, OK, maybe number three wasn't that reasonable even when it happened. After all, it is the second oldest movie schtick in the book. Vinny Barbarino turns his back, the evil mastermind starts to squeeze the trigger, gunshots ring out, there is a dramatic pause, then we see Mr Mastermind drop to the ground instead of Barbarino. Only then is Nielsen revealed, smoking gun in hand. (Roll eyes skyward here.)

I said the SECOND oldest. The oldest movie schtick is, of course, the bad guy tying up the good guy, telling him the evil plot, then leaving him alone without killing him, a series of actions which inevitably results in an escape. As I recall, the scripters used that particular device in every single episode of The Lone Ranger. Lone always managed to break free from his restraints, using one of the following plot devices:

1) cut ropes with broken glass

2) burn ropes with the magnified rays of the sun

3) have Silver chew ropes

4) be rescued by Tonto

... oh, yeah, back to "Basic"

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director John McTiernan

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Featurettes: "Basic: A Director's Design," "Basic Ingredients: A Writer's Perspective"

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

I love sting movies, Samuel L is my favorite star, and I really enjoy the Roshomon premise in which varying accounts of an incident have to be reconciled, so I enjoyed this film as a guilty pleasure. On the other hand, it is really my kind of movie, and I was willing to ignore the details that didn't add up because of the overall pleasure I derive from a really complicated sting. Your mileage will probably vary. Judging from the critical reaction, I think most of you will find this too damned complicated and contrived. The ending of the film had not one surprise twist, but about four or five within the last few minutes, when all the layers of the sting were revealed. At that point, I think most people were thinking "c'mon, enough already".

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: one and a half stars. Ebert 1/4, Berardinelli 2/4, BBC 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It disappointed. It grossed only $26 million despite an A-list cast. Its opening weekend was only third best of the films that week.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. Despite an A-list cast and budget, it's just an average movie which got too complicated to maintain the sense of fun that is supposed to be present in a sting film. Some of the plot twists which seemed reasonable at the time turned out to have been illogical when all the hole cards were revealed. On the other hand, I like this kind of film, and I sat back and enjoyed the ride, so watch it if you join me in a love of complex stings. It was only after it was over that I started to have doubts.

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