As its title suggests, John McTiernan’s new action-thriller, Basic is not very new. Written by James Vanderbilt (responsible for the equally poorly plotted Darkness Falls), the film offers up a standard cat-and-mouse intrigue, wherein an investigator endeavors to solve a crime, and in the process uncovers a web of corruption so profound that it shakes her worldview. The investigator here, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), must find her way through multiple stories unfolding in separate flashbacks, intersecting and diverging, until you’ve either figured out exactly who the bad guys are or dozed off.
Osborne is introduced via her Southernish voiceover, as she narrates a brief history of the Panama Canal, near where she’s currently (1999) stationed at Fort Clayton. Noting the relationships among France’s initial efforts to build it, the devastating effects of malaria on these efforts, the U.S. purchase of French rights and properties in 1904, and the money made off treatment of malaria, she concludes, “This place has always had a special way of dealing with both profit and death.”
So, okay. Be on the lookout for dishonesty, loss of life, and greed in what follows.
Then comes the rain, and with it, the dramatic first appearance of hard-drinking DEA agent Tom Hardy (John Travolta), banging around in his tropical hotel room, apparently depressed and off the wagon, presently suspended after being accused of accepting a bribe. Just when things look their bleakest (rain, booze, etc.), Hardy’s old buddy Styles (Timothy Daly), who now commands the U.S. base in Panama, calls him in for a job that only he can do. This would be the interrogation of a Ranger named Dunbar (Brian Van Holt) concerning a training exercise gone terribly wrong.
Dunbar has emerged from this apparent disaster in the Panamanian jungle carrying fellow Ranger Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) on his shoulder. Now, the wounded Kendall lies unconscious in a hospital bed and Dunbar refuses to talk. All other members of their team appear to be missing, including the notoriously ferocious Sgt. West (yet another over the top performance by Samuel L. Jackson). As Hardy reveals to Dunbar, he was once trained by West, before he left the military, and so he sympathizes with any rage he might feel: West, all agree, is (or was) a terrible person, a fact demonstrated across a series of ostensibly competing flashbacks: in every one, he mercilessly abuses Pike (Taye Diggs).
Even if he does have this bit of military background, civilian Hardy’s “completely unorthodox” arrival ruffles Osborne’s by-the-book feathers, because she’s supposed to be in charge of the interrogation. Styles says, essentially, too bad, he needs his man, because, he insists, “There’s nobody better in a room.” (Read this as you will.) His reputation thus preceding him, Hardy wastes no time messing with Osborne, getting her to admit right off that she’s feeling “hostile and uncooperative.” As if to give her a good reason to feel that way, he leans in close and, claiming he’s still a little drunk, declares that he prefers to “skip over the witty banter and move straight into coming on to you.” To Osborne’s credit, she looks somewhat repulsed by this idea.
The movie proceeds to line up an assortment of possibilities: Pike fragged the Sarge, or Kendall did, or maybe Dunbar, or jeez, Nuñez (Roselyn Sanchez) looks angry too, as do durable Mueller (Dash Mihok) and dour Castro (Cristián de la Feunte). During flashbacks narrated by Dunbar and then Kendall (who usefully regains consciousness, and not a little attitude), thunder crashes, lightning flashes, and characters loom in their frames, their faces wet and shiny, their ponchos dark and slick, their gear silhouetted so they look like scary monsters.
The team regroups, seeking shelter from the hurricane that’s taken down their helicopter, at a shack on the training ground, where they confront one another, cast aspersions, and take sides. They tell each other stories, which lead to flashbacks within the flashbacks. None of the stories jibes exactly — West was hit with a grenade, or he was shot and then grenaded. Or then again, maybe he showed up back at the shack, and took out his betrayers. Pike was tied up, or he wasn’t. Mueller went crazy, or he didn’t. Someone was trading drugs, or he wasn’t. Nuñez took off her jacket, or she didn’t. Everyone was killed, or they weren’t.
As these many twists and turns suggest, Osborne and Hardy are rather up against a nest of deception. Throughout their investigation, they’re confronted with the idea that, as monumentally self-pitying Kendall puts it, there are “degrees of truth.” And it’s up to the investigators to ferret out which degree is more useful than another. Not more truthful, just more useful. And in this dancing about, McTiernan reveals his continuing appreciation of the fun and nuance of big movie lies, much as he did back when he made the genre-jolters Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988). But the pace is slowed here, and the commentary more mundane (the U.S. government is run by liars, the military is gung-ho, and oh yes, also full of liars, but their cause is just).
And poor Osborne. The exemplary outsider, even as she’s trying to figure out how to read the Rangers’ stories, she’s also dealing with her on-again, off-again lover, Pete (Harry Connick Jr., quite evidently in Copycat mode, as opposed to Will & Grace mode), a doctor down at the hospital where they interview Kendall. Eventually, Basic breaks down into obviously and odiously gendered and raced “sides,” never a good sign for a movie purporting to examine ambiguity. By the time she’s running through a Day of the Dead Festival to track her final suspect, you know, even if she doesn’t, that she’s in the wrong movie altogether. (How many times have you seen this signifier for the exotic otherness of the drug-trading underworld?)
Osborne’s degrees of truths are, at first glance, less ambiguous than those of the men, perhaps because she is a woman trying to survive in a world where men make all the rules, again and again. She’s clearly finished with Pete’s shenanigans. She doesn’t appreciate getting jerked around by Hardy. And she definitely resents Styles’ tedious disrespect. Still, the film’s ostensible surprises — end runs around seeming plot setups or characterizations — are cheats more than they’re asking you to rethink your reading abilities, or your understanding of how narrative works. Basic is as generic as they come.