The Usual Suspects is a movie built around a big final twist. That film presents us with Kevin Spacey, whose character is invariably described as “weak” and “stupid” throughout the film, characterizations he doesn’t protest and even uses himself. In addition to his physical and mental shortcomings, he spends much of the film being pushed around by other men, both physically and rhetorically. The cat-and-mouse game between Spacey and Chazz Palmintieri’s federal agent seems more a David-and-Goliath struggle, in which Spacey becomes sort of an underdog, earning sympathy from the audience and even a sort of trust–he doesn’t even seem capable of putting one over on wily old Chazz. Of course, he does [spoiler alert for a 22 year old movie that has already been spoiled and parodied a million times already], and it’s precisely those biases and sympathies which make Spacey’s carefully calculated performance work, both on Palmintieri and the audience. The essential ingredient, though, is that the character is so convincingly implied to be exactly what he appears that the rug can be pulled out from under us.

Basic is a movie that would not only unhesitatingly give its left nut to be The Usual Suspects, it would seriously consider giving the right one as well. That it fails in trying to top Bryan Singer’s film is far from a shock, but just how badly it fails, and how funny that failure becomes, very much is. The main reason it doesn’t work is that it never really gives us anyone or anything to really lock onto enough before it starts pulling the rug out from under us, which it does constantly. There’s no confidence game without confidence, but almost every character is carefully established as being not at all what they appear to be. The movie involves an Army training mission that resulted in tragedy and characters trying to reconstruct what happened, Rashomon-style, but the survivors are from the start shown to be obvious, cagey liars whose stories cannot be believed. John Travolta’s character is Tom Hardy, a DEA Agent under suspicion of accepting bribes, something that hangs over him the whole movie. And then you have Colonel Tim Daly, whose hasty and nonsensical plan to bring in someone outside the military (and under suspicion) to investigate the crime is so bonkers that it’s also obvious he’s not what he seems, either. (“Look, we’ll just credit anything he comes up with to you and we won’t say he’s been here.” Yeah, that sounds like it’s going to hold up in a court of law!) Really, the only person who is mostly what she seems to be is Connie Nielsen’s protagonist, who would be the character around which to build a rug-pulling finale of some sort or other. But the movie doesn’t do that, because it is entirely backward about how you create surprise and tension. Having so many characters up in the air doesn’t make for a suspenseful thriller, it just makes the entire thing unhinged and sort of tedious. For all the trappings and forms of the thriller at play in Basic, it’s fundamentally a cops-and-robbers story with an unflappable lead. Columbo or Kojak on a military base (or, to be completely accurate, movie production offices intended to look like a military base). So if you imagine an episode of CSI: New York with a bunch of actors turning in batshit performances and some overblown Big Twist every fifteen minutes or so, you get the picture.

He’s a collar away from being Sterling Archer.

Basic isn’t necessarily an entry-level bad movie. It’s not wall-to-wall epic badness like The Room–far too much of the movie consists of flashbacks onto the same action, which are kind of unremarkable aside from how cheap the sets look and how bad Taye Diggs’s central performance in those scenes is (which is hilarious). But there is a considerable amount of pleasure to be gotten from everything else in the film. For starters, there’s the top-billed performance of John Travolta. Travolta is in the Nicolas Cage category of actors who have proven that they have talent, and yet are so often willing to just push it aside and deliver nutty, manic, hammy performances when they feel like it. It’s not at all hard to imagine Cage in the role of Tom Hardy (which is not the name of either of The Hardy Boys, I checked), which Travolta plays with manic energy and a constant smirk. Like a lot of Travolta’s worst work, Hardy doesn’t much feel like a real person, so much as a collection of actorly tics and bizarre, attention-grabbing choices, such as the weirdly sexually suggestive body language he employs while conducting the movie’s central interview. Hardy is the sort of detective who blows up at a suspect and storms out of a room, then waits right outside looking at his watch, counting the seconds before he’s asked to come back in. (Actually, he’s more than that sort of detective: this highly cliched scene actually occurs in the film.) The real pleasure of a detective story is to see a superior mind figure out a crime that makes no sense at all. There’s not much of that to Hardy, who just jumps to conclusions that are either right or wrong depending where we are in the running time. However, he does nearly murder someone outright in front of a whole armed military guard of witnesses at one point, so there is that:

But ultimately, Travolta must give way to the king of camp in this movie, fellow Scientologist Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi plays an injured Army Ranger and his choices for the role are completely insane–he does the whole thing in a Lorne Michaels-esque voice, but thicker and harder to understand even when in the flashbacks where he isn’t injured. Ribisi just lets it rip: the voice, bizarre gestures, and weird jumps in energy level are only part of the over-the-topness he brings to the material. It really does have to be seen to be believed:

Also, the movie stars both Tim Daly and crooner Harry Connick Jr., both of whom are fairly egregiously miscast. Daly never really convinces as a military man: a CEO would be a much more plausible choice for him. It’s like putting Rob Lowe in a colonel’s uniform: would I ever believe that Rob Lowe killed a man? Hardly. And Connick Jr. is in way over his head as a drug-dealing Army doctor, truly one of the least scary movie villains I’ve ever seen. He reminded me of Hank Azaria’s scumbag character from Heat, but almost as if you took out any of the smarm and nastiness of that character. He does kind of sing at one point, I guess, if that does anything for you. Also, Sam Jackson is in it. Sam Jackson makes anything better, right! Well…he actually gives a pretty measured performance as the sadistic Drill Sergeant West, though not a hugely inspired one: it’s well within the usual parameters of a performance of this sort, part Lou Gossett Jr., part R. Lee Ermey, part Al Matthews from Aliens. Jackson is someone who can ham it up and play to the ridiculousness, but he alone among the leads seems to think he’s actually making a good movie and does the work. (This might have to do with his not having scenes with the main cast.) There’s not much else to say besides that: Connie Nielsen plays the protagonist in maybe the most thankless role of all time, though with no small amount of visible frustration. Nielsen is a Dutch actress playing a woman from the American South and does okay with the accent at times–it seems obvious she worked really goddamn hard on it–but whenever she shouts the game is up. It is, however, a shame she couldn’t sing a theme to the movie, Will Smith in Wild Wild West style:

As for the twists…this is the sort of movie that punctuates a HUGE TWIST with slow-motion and tense music, but then within five minutes we’re back to the same assholes talking about the exact same events and it’s almost as though that EARTH-SHATTERING TWIST didn’t matter. Even the big twist at the end is about as lame as can be. It’s not quite a “this was all an elaborate test for you to pass” ending, but it’s not far from that, either. How do these secret organizations have time to create these huge elaborate tests for members to join? Wouldn’t a simple referral system work a lot better? (On an unrelated tangent: if Starfleet works up a complete psychological profile on every single applicant to Starfleet Academy, replete with their greatest fear, how would they possibly have enough resources to explore anything?) Also, at the end Nielsen seems to immediately know who all these people are even though she’s never met them before, she’s only heard about them. We, however, saw them in flashbacks. Did she watch the movie too, Spaceballs-style?

Ultimately, Basic is a failure of direction. John McTiernan directed, over the course of a few years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and Die Hard. That’s some pretty impressive work, but his work afterward showed a steady decline, from the ahead-of-its-time Last Action Hero to the uninspired remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, to the truly dire remake of RollerballBasic is actually the most recent film on his filmography, which is sad for someone so accomplished. But then again, maybe he was just bored of directing as he clearly didn’t give a fuck about this movie. It’s certainly imaginable that there’s a good movie to be made with this scenario and thematic material. And if he’d cared just a little bit, the movie could have been a lot better. It’s obvious that he had insufficient resources to make the movie as there are maybe five extras in the whole thing, plus the sets and locations are simply not very good. But he still could have told Travolta to sit down with his knees together, or told Ribisi to do something different with his voice. He could have paid more attention to casting, or reworked the film so that it wasn’t so repetitive and monotonous. Certainly, he could have actually listened to the sound on the film and done something to improve it–it’s shocking how badly recorded and mixed it is for a studio film. But instead of these things, he did nothing. In a way, I’m glad he failed so completely with the movie, because a boring, C+ cheapie thriller (which somehow starred two Hollywood A-listers and a handful of notable character actors) would be sort of pointless anyway, and a gonzo bad movie is a better thing to have out in the world. Still, blame where it is due.

There are some copies of the full movie up on YouTube but they look like poor quality to me. Just do what I did, go find it in a dollar bin somewhere. I guarantee you you’ll find Basic there.

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