Basic is difficult to review. I'm not really sure what genre it fits in to. Drama is probably the closest. Maybe a courtroom drama without a courtroom. In addition to genre confusion, this movie is all about the revelation. Well, revelationS. There is absolutely no way I want to spoil this movie for anyone, because it's best when a first viewing is as blind as possible. Still, I'll do my best to convince you that you need to see this movie.
First off, it's directed by John McTeirnan. Yeah, the guy who directed Die Hard. It's also got John Travolta-- WHOA! Don't leave. No, this is Travolta being freaking amazing. Not Battlefield Earth Travolta, but Pulp Fiction and Face/Off Travolta. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson. The man isn't in the movie terribly much, but he drives the plot, and when he's on-screen, he's golden.
So, that's the who. As for the where, Basic takes place on a United States military base in Panama. Actually, it takes place mostly within two buildings on the base, plus going to the jungle for flashbacks. Such a limited number of sets actually works really well for the plot. It starts out with a chopper searching for some half-dozen or so Rangers late checking in from a training exercise. They see one Ranger carrying a body on his back, with another Ranger running after. They exchange fire, and the chaser is killed. The body is one of the marines (Kendall), who was shot in the hip, and played by Giovanni Ribisi. His carrier was Dunbar, played by Brian Van Holt. Kendall is taken to medical for treatment, and Dunbar is taken for questioning. Dunbar refuses to talk to anyone but a fellow Ranger, which prompts Base Commander Styles to call Travolta (Hardy), a former Ranger, now DEA agent under suspicion of bribery.
Hardy shows up on base, greeted by Styles and introduced to base investigator Osborne. In a great way of setting the tone of the movie, as well as the attitudes of the characters, Hardy asks Osborne how she feels about an outside guy being on her turf, and she (quite cheerily, might I add) responds "Hostile and uncooperative." "Fantastic!" quips Hardy. And with the stage set and the characters introduced, the plot gets rolling, with Hardy and Osborne questioning first Dunbar, then Kendall, trying to find out what happened and where the rest of their squad is, including the trainer West (Samuel L. Jackson). As they learn what's going on, they bounce back and forth, trying to poke holes in the stories, and put the pieces together. Dunbar tells one story, Kendall another. When Dunbar is told what Kendall said, he tells a slightly different story. And so it goes, peeling back the layers of deceit and double-talk. That's why the limited sets work so well for the plot. Just as Hardy and Osborne bounce between Kendall and Dunbar, they bounce between locations, making limited progress, being led back and forth.
Even though he only shows up in the flashbacks, Jackson is great as the Ranger trainer. The man's natural ability to exude "don't screw with me" vibes and great intensity in shouting is pretty much perfect for the part. He even pops "crazy eyes" at someone (if you don't get that reference, go watch The New Guy, it's really funny). Ribisi does really well at portraying someone trying to play intrigue, but is over his head, and Van Holt carries off the "you can't possibly not believe me" vibe really well. In fact, pretty much everyone in the movie is excellent. The worst is probably Harry Connick Jr. playing the chief of medical staff Vilmer. He's just a little over the top at times, but not to a scenery-chewing degree.
Probably the real weakness of this movie is that it can get a little difficult to follow towards the end, simply because the plot accelerates from the methodical pace it goes at for the first hour. If you're not paying attention, you might miss something important that then makes everything very confusing. I'd actually recommend watching this movie twice, and paying attention to how well it lays in dialogue early on that helps clear up some potential plot holes.
So, this is a crazy movie full of excellent actors doing some excellent exchanges and interplay, and if you don't watch it, you're really missing out on something good.