directed by John McTiernan
1 August 2006 movie review
by Collie Collier

Credits: For Dave, who brought it over — you know me too well! ;)


This is apparently a movie with a very mixed reputation. I came to it unsure as to whether it would be any good, since I'd heard both that it was really excellent, and that it didn't make sense in the end. After having seen the movie, I can understand (but not agree with) the latter accusation. The movie is a murder mystery set as an action flick, deliberately designed to thwart common expectations. If you're not paying attention you can easily miss critical plot points, and things won't make sense to you.

I come from a background that taught me to focus on what I was doing. I'm terrible at listening to the radio or watching TV while I'm trying to do something else — the faces and conversations tend to distract me and I end up paying attention to whatever media is playing, rather than to what I'm trying to actually accomplish. This means, however, that my entire focus is usually on whatever it is I'm doing, whether that's working on something or consuming some form of media. Therefore it's perhaps unsurprising to discover I really, really enjoyed the movie!

Because it was so much fun, and contained so many interesting plot twists, I don't want to ruin it for you. Fair warning, therefore: there are spoilers after the "Synopsis"! Proceed with caution, if you've not yet seen the movie.

Synopsis

Six US army rangers and their commanding officer go into the brush for a routine training exercise in the Panama Canal Zone. Their scheduled pick-up time passes without their signal, but due to an oncoming hurricane a chopper is not sent out to find them until 17 hours have passed. The arriving chopper, which expects a routine late pick-up, discovers one ranger carrying a second and heading for rendezvous, with a hidden third shooting at the fleeing two — using live ammunition. The fleeing ranger manages to kill the attacker and make the pick-up with his wounded friend… and that's when the questions start being asked.

What happened to the other four people? Why were the rangers using live ammunition on each other? Are drugs actually mixed up in this affair, or is it only military base rumor due to being located in Panama? And what is the significance of the number 8 on the message the healthy surviving ranger scribbles, asking for an off-base ranger to talk to, since he cannot trust anyone else?


Characters

The male protagonist, Tom Hardy, is played by John Travolta, with full charm turned on. He's a former army ranger, now DEA agent-on-leave due to being under suspicion of accepting bribes from the local drug traffickers. Despite what you might initially think, he turns out not to be either completely-nice-but-misunderstood, or the central character. Indeed, that actually benefits his character development, as goody-goody protagonists are not usually allowed to be too mentally quick, too roguishly charming, or too morally ambiguous. Thus he ends up having far more personality than the central character — which I suspect is one of the reasons the writer played so with audience expectations.

The stiff-necked military provost marshall, Captain Julia Osborne, is young and a bit new, and thinks things should be done by the book. She's quite exasperated with her base commander, Colonel Bill Styles, for bringing in a civilian, Hardy, to question her prisoner, despite Hardy being an ex-army ranger. One would expect her to be an easy plot scapegoat, or simply the love interest — and yet she's not. Again, expectations are wonderfully tossed out the window: Osborne is quick on the uptake, physically adept and well-trained, has little trouble resisting the "hero's" romantic manipulations, and in the end unexpectedly figures out the underlying plotting — to the surprise of those very plotters.

Another interesting person in the movie is the other strong military character: the arrogantly self-assured Sergeant Nathan West. He's both photographed and played larger than life, by Samuel Jackson, and I can easily see how his recruits could view him so: as a sadistic, almost supernaturally large personality. He seems to deliberately, almost cheerfully augment the hatred he inspires in his recruits, choosing one of them randomly at the beginning of training to scapegoat for his demeaning, pointless demands in the midst of grueling, debilitating, destructive physical tests. Yet he too manages to retain a thread of sympathy when it's revealed he's quite aware that washing out with him means his trainees don't get promoted — but washing out in combat due to a lack of harsh training by him means they'll die.

Point of view

As I mentioned, the writer has deliberately (and very enjoyably!) played with character expectations. Fascinatingly, he does the same with the plot as well, delivering startling, Rashomon-like switches of perspective. Who is truly West's scapegoat this time around, and is that person responsible for his murder? These sudden changes of understanding are beautifully demonstrated by swiftly delivered photographic flashbacks, dramatically underscoring the changing consequences.

The mystery deepens as the two survivors (each isolated from the other) give differing interpretations of what happened, then begin squabbling and trying to play for the sympathies of the interrogators as they realize the depth of the Prisoner's Dilemma they are currently caught in. The stakes are high — if they are convicted of murder they'll be put to death, but if they're convicted of trafficking in drugs they'll 'only' face something like 20 years in military prison.

Coupled with the pressure on the prisoners is the pressure on the interrogators. They have only a few hours in which to elicit confessions, and then the transport will arrive to whisk the prisoners away to the mainland US for a military trial. The base commander is also leaning on them to clear his base of allegations of drug trafficking. The shared history he and Hardy have (training together under the brutal Sgt. West) adds an interesting twist on their friendship.

Results

The concluding realizations made by Osborne are filmed much as she must have felt as she put the pieces together: flashes of moments juxtaposed to demonstrate shocking realizations. As she carefully moves through the celebrating Panamanian town in pursuit of her killer, the almost unbelievable nature of the bewildering conclusions are highlighted in the dream-like, dimly lit visuals. Weirdly costumed participants in the holiday parade bound and bow and caper in the streets, with firecrackers adding startlingly lurid counterpoint. Her grinning target dances in and out of sight with them, as if surrounded by demonic allies. His eerily relaxed, celebratory mood emphasizes the stress and focus of her aloneness during her tense, armed pursuit.

Indeed, the entire scene emphasizes how by movie's end their positions are truly reversed. He starts out appearing a loner, an outlaw of questionable morals with no friends, while she is the bulwark of the military status quo, buttressed by the very chain of command she strengthens. To her he is an annoyance, not really smart or trained enough to figure things out. In the end, however, it is clear it is he who has underestimated her, as she figures out the tangled web of deceit and double-cross. Further, it is he who has many, many friends in both low and high places, while she is the one who is really the ethical loner, confused and appalled to discover just how little it takes to shatter her comfortingly solid-seeming military hierarchy.

I like movies that play with expectations, surprising me and making me re-think my guesses. If you like that sort of movie also, I highly recommend Basic — it's a thoughtful amount of fun!

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