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Basic (2003) – DVD Review

Cover for the DVD Basic starring John Travolta and Sam Jackson


Written by James Vanderbilt
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring John Travolta, Connie Nielsen, Samuel Jackson, Tim Daly, Brian Van Holt, Taye Diggs, Giovanni Ribisi, and Harry Connick, Jr.


  • Director’s commentary
  • “Basic: A Director’s Design” featurette
  • “Basic Ingredients: A Writer’s Perspective” featurette
  • Filmographies
  • Trailers

Released by: Columbia Tri-star
Region: 1
Rating: R
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Definitely worth a rental.

[ad#longpost]When a half-dozen hardass Army Rangers head out for a training exercise, and only two come out the other side, the military’s bound to ask questions. Not only did two-thirds of the trainees not make it out of the jungle, neither did their trainer, Sgt. West (Jackson). With only six hours to spare and the base provost marshal Lt. Osborne (Nielsen) coming up empty interrogating the survivors, Col. Styles (Daly) calls in an old Army buddy-turned-DEA agent, Tom Hardy (Travolta).

Hardy and Nielsen find themselves plunged into a labyrinthine world of betrayals and counter-betrayals, and where nobody’s story seems to jive with anyone else’s. As they attempt to uncover what really went on in the jungles of Panama, the web of intrigue spreads further and further until it’s impossible to tell who is telling the truth and who is simply another part of the increasingly complex conspiracy that spans performance-enhancing drugs, cocaine smuggling, and murder.

Basic owes a significant debt to the classic Rashômon. The whole “crime-from-multiple-angles” bit is pulled off brilliantly here, thanks to both Vanderbilt’s excellent script and McTiernan’s equally sharp direction. With each iteration of the actual moment of crime in the jungle, the events are provided in deeper detail, leading the viewer through the same mental reconstruction of events that the investigators are uncovering a piece at a time. The end result is that the film manages the uncommon feat of not being predictable.

John Travolta in Basic

The acting is good throughout. Jackson plays a fantastic hardcase drill sergeant. The on-screen chemistry between Nielsen and Travolta makes for great viewing. Van Holt holds his own despite being put opposite some true heavyweights. The only soft spot is Ribisi, whose performance isn’t bad per se, but inexplicably over-the-top and offbeat. His wounded soldier is a gibbering madman with a strange affected voice, and is a sharp contrast to the otherwise grounded performances of his castmates.

The disc has some interesting features. First up, there’s discussions with McTiernan and Vanderbilt and interviews with cast and crew about the production. These featurettes veer towards the smoke-blowing but they manage to keep from being completely useless. The excellent commentary with McTiernan is recommended, but only for those who enjoyed the film.

Giovanni Ribisi in Basic

For those that enjoy a good mystery/intrigue yarn, this is a movie not to be missed. The bonus features are also well worth watching, but the nature of this flick is such that after a single viewing, the surprises are all gone and the story becomes significantly less interesting. So rental is the way to go.

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