Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (2003)

11. Basic

After the public rejection of “Last Action Hero,” John McTiernan bounced back with “Die Had with a Vengeance.” After “The 13th Warrior” bombed enormously, McTiernan had a hit with “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Even the best gamblers eventually run out of luck. Following the grotesque failure of “Rollerball,” another Hail Mary pass wasn’t coming McTiernan’s way. “Basic,” his final film as of now, grossed 42 million dollars against a 50 million dollar budget. The reviews were negative, the film’s poorly chosen title opening itself up to numerous lame puns. The film attempted to build hype by repairing John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson for the first time since “Pulp Fiction” but it was no use. “Basic” would be the latest entry in a line of failures for its director.

In Panama, a man emerges from the jungles, carrying another man on his back, and pursued by a third man. A training mission for a team of Army Rangers has gone horribly wrong. Half the team is dead, including the master sergeant. The survivor refuses to speak to Captain Julia Osborne, the assignee to the case. Instead, former Ranger and DEA agent Tom Hardy is brought in. The two are told conflicting stories about what happened in the jungle, uncovering a drug smuggling plot and a web of deception.

“Basic” is a mystery. If it wasn’t for the flashbacks and a few location changes, it would be a closed room mystery. The murders happen before the movie begins and there’s basically only one suspect. Yet determining what happened is not that simple. On a basic level, the story boils down to a series of interrogations, the two detectives trying to hash out the details, determine the lies, and figure out what actually happened. The use of conflicting flashbacks also means “Basic” owes a lot to Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” still one of the most ripped-off movies in cinema history. Despite relying on some old and worn out story concepts, “Basic” presents its narrative in a mildly clever fashion.

That John Travolta and John McTiernan would work together is appropriate. Travolta has had even more wild ups-and-downs in his career as McTiernan has. By 2003, Travolta has burned through all the good will “Pulp Fiction” had earned him. This was post-“Battlefield Earth,” after all. It was also post-“Swordfish,” a minor hit that had reestablished Travolta’s box office clout to a degree. In “Basic,” Travolta treads out the old swagger he’s been coasting on for decades. He coos, snaps his fingers, speaks lots of exaggerated dialogue, and shimmies. If you have a tolerance for Travolta when he mugs, it’s not a bad performance. Just know before hand his work here is closer to “Broken Arrow” or “Michael” than “Pulp Fiction” or “Saturday Night Fever.”

Most of “Basic” is built upon the chemistry between Travolta and Connie Nielsen as Captain Osborne. Nielsen does fine on her own. As the only true outsider to the situation, Nielsen does a fine job of being confused. There are a number of moments, when she plays “bad cop” or cracks a phone book across a guy’s face, where she gets to display an impressive toughness. The weird, quasi-romance she has with Travolta is less organic. A handful of scenes are devoted to their flirting. Whenever these moments come up, it feels out of place. Travolta is always slightly withdrawn while Nielsen seems uncertain of his loyalties.

Despite being sold on John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s pairing, the performers only have two scenes together. Jackson plays the abusive drill sergeant, the apparent victim of the central murder. Jackson is treading ground previously touched upon by R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” and many other military flicks. Unlike Travolta’s slightly tired shtick, watching Jackson scream petty abuse at people is always entertaining. The scenes of him berating the soldiers under him are especially amusing, making Jackson’s character into a perfectly hatable villain.

The meat of “Basic” is devoted to the flashbacks. The heavy use of voice over narration provides continuity between the memories and the scenes set in the present. The events follow a general outline, with small variances. The flashbacks are set primarily out in the rain while all the current scenes are inside. That’s some decent visual short hand, so the audience can keep up. The details vary between renditions. In one version, the victim is murdered with a grenade. In another, he’s shot in the back. In yet another, his shooter acts in self defense. The mental homework of figuring out which flashback presents the true events, or at least which one is more true than the others, is what’s most interesting about “Basic.”

The most compelling parts of the flashbacks revolve around the soldiers turning on one another. In “Basic,” the training missions meant to build camaraderie between the soldiers accomplishes the opposite. The men turn against each other, distrust causing their mutual macho aggression to boil over. In the first flashback, Jackson relentlessly torments a poor trainee. In another, the men all turn on one another, all but three dying in a storm of gunshots. The next time events play, the order of deaths is the same but the motive behind the shoot-out is different. The violence is sudden and effective. Perhaps the most shocking plot turns concerns a character suddenly vomiting up blood, dying unexpectedly. When focused on hard men turning on each other, and the rough ways they die, “Basic” becomes compelling entertainment.

However, even these effective moments have a problem. None of the soldiers in “Basic” are very distinct from one another. Out of the entire group, only two really stand out. Taye Diggs garners audience sympathy as Pike, the trainee who receives the worst of Jackson’s abuse. During the first flashback, you feel especially bad for him. After struggling to climb a hill, he’s mock by the sergeant and forced to do it again. Giovanni Ribisi, as the bed-ridden and homosexual Lieutenant Kendall, gives an eccentric performance. While he’s unable to define the character beyond his quirks, at least Ribisi is memorable. The other cast members quickly fade from memory. Is that Tim Daly as the Colonel heading the investigation or was it Harry Connick Jr.? No, Connick  was the shifty doctor. Brian Van Holt as the accused soldier, Dash Mihok as the redneck sergeant, Cristian de la Fuente as the token female… They all tend to blur into one another.

At the beginning of his career, John McTiernan’s visual sense was super sharp, providing memorable, dynamic, and exciting action. The further into this retrospective I go, the more disappointed I become with McTiernan’s work. “Basic” is characterized by a lot of rain. The movie is set during a hurricane. This could have been an oppretunity to generate some moodiness. Instead, the story just feels dreary. Worst yet, McTiernan’s action direction has totally devolve. The action sequence in “Basic” are rushed and shaky. A certain chaotic quality was intended, I’m sure. Any impact this might have had on the audience is lost, as we’re more concerned with the hazy visual sense. To go from the awesome action of “Predator” to the indistinct shoot-outs here is very disheartening.

As is typical of mysteries like this, “Basic” has a few subplots that seem unimportant at first before becoming pertinent details. This time, it’s a drug smuggling operation among the soldiers. Who was obtaining the drugs, who was manufacturing them, and who was shipping them are all questions raised and answered. The script doesn’t make you care about this stuff. At least, I didn’t care. By it’s last act, “Basic” collapses in on itself, a number of story lines coming to a head, all sloppily colliding with each other. When the murder is finally pinned on somebody, when a clear answer is provided, that made me happy.

Yet “Basic” isn’t done with you. In its final minutes, the movie piles on more and more plot twist. Oh wait, the script considers, maybe this is how it went! The loyalties and character development the film spent the last eighty minutes on are thrown to the wind. Before the credits roll, yet another twist is tossed out. This final revelation changes the context of everything that came before. The audience feels cheated, like their time was wasted. There’s a sense that events don’t connected. The screenwriter has been jerking us around, simply laying the track for a lame plot twist, a weak attempt to fool us.

“Basic” isn’t without its moment. Travolta and Jackson do their usual tricks but they still manage to amuse. Connie Nielsen gives a good performance, making the most of what she’s given. One or two sequence sticks out, impressing with some sudden violence or a flash of empathy. Before it’s over, “Basic” disappears up its own ass, becoming a collection of convoluted story turns and dramatic reveals. The result is a film that doesn’t hang together totally, that frustrates too often. But let’s look on the sunny side. At least it's better than “Rollerball.” [Grade: C]

You don't need me to tell you what happened to John McTiernan next. In 2006, McTiernan was arrested, implemented in the wire taping case involving private detective Anthony Pellicano. The director ultimately went to jail for the crime of lying to an FBI agent. The scandal destroyed McTiernan's career. Released from prison in 2014, McTiernan has tried to get a few projects rolling. An aerial combat film called "Warbirds," meant to star John Travolta, seemed ready to go at one point but has yet to materialize. He's most recently been linked to a World War II thriller called "Killing the Butcher." The director also really wants to make a sequel to "The Thomas Crown Affair." I'm rooting for him but it's currently unknown if McTiernan will ever have the comeback he arguably deserves.

This Report Card may be wrapped up but I'm not quite done at the moment. Expect a couple more reviews in the next few days, linked to some of the franchise I've talked about recently. There's also a new Bangers n' Mash episode in the editing bay. As always, see you soon.

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