Powerfully subtle and timely plot twists typify great thrillers. However, when used excessively and intentionally to confuse audiences, plot twists can be the Achilles’ heel of a thriller. Such is sadly the case in John McTiernan’s “Basic.”

Zac Peskowitz
Courtesy of Columbia

This labyrinthine military thriller pairs John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in a web of conspiracy and murder that eventually leaves audiences frustrated and exasperated through dime-a-dozen plot twists that lend themselves more to futile improvisation rather than thoughtful filmmaking. The film’s inception has promise and establishes an intriguing scenario, but the forced manipulation seriously undermines any potential that it flaunts.

The story focuses on a routine training exercise – involving six chosen Army Rangers and their callous commander, Sgt. Nathan West (Jackson) – gone awry. All six soldiers fly into a remote Panamanian jungle and only two emerge alive, one critically wounded. Col. Bill Styles and his command need answers before news of this fiasco reaches Washington; thus, he phones friend/interrogator extraordinaire, former Army Ranger and current Drug Enforcement Administration agent Tom Hardy (Travolta).

Travolta provides a fresh wit and energy to the role of Hardy, a witty developing-alcoholic who is far past his prime, with an edge that complements the ripe immaturity of his interrogation partner, Capt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen, “Gladiator”). The two pounce on the surviving Rangers, Sgt. Dunbar and Lt. Kendall, playing good cop/bad cop and searching for evidence to substantiate their investigation. Initially, their findings are interesting, as they become aware of the pervasive enmity amongst the soldiers for Sgt. West. So one is led to believe that the murder was a crime of passion and hatred for a cruel commander, right? Not exactly.

One clue leads to another, and the gumshoes continue investigating this seemingly endless and unresolved journey into an abyss of conspiracy and lies. Their findings come with a severe price, though: complete and utter disinterest on behalf of audience members.

Successful confounded thrillers like “The Usual Suspects” are brilliant in their abilities to operate within their own limits. They build tension and expectations and resolve them in a dumbfounding way. “Basic” attempts to outdo itself in seemingly every scene, and ultimately, it defeats the purpose.

Jackson’s performance as an inhumane drill sergeant is just, if not more, convincing than Travolta’s. Furthermore, plot twists aside, the script is well written and stages some powerful and funny dialogue. Nonetheless, the useless plot twists sadly steal the show. When watching “Basic,” one feels as though the one-time action guru McTiernan (“Predator,” “Die Hard”) is almost condescending and patronizing. People can only digest so much in one viewing, and to bombard viewers with such an array of confusing and detrimental plot twists is entirely pointless. Hopefully in making his next film, he will properly shift his focus from plot manipulation and confusion to feasible storytelling and logical plot resolution.

Rating: 2 Stars

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