Basic (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn McTiernan
Written byJames Vanderbilt
Produced by
CinematographySteve Mason
Edited byGeorge Folsey Jr.
Music byKlaus Badelt
Distributed by
Release date
  • March 28, 2003 (2003-03-28) (United States)
Running time
98 minutes
  • United States
  • Germany
Budget$50 million[1]
Box office$42.8 million[2]

Basic is a 2003 mystery-action thriller film directed by John McTiernan, written by James Vanderbilt, and starring John Travolta, Connie Nielsen and Samuel L. Jackson. It is the second film starring Travolta and Jackson after working on Pulp Fiction. The story follows a DEA agent solving the mystery of a bungled training exercise that leads to the deaths of multiple Army Ranger trainees and their instructor. Basic received negative reviews from critics regarding its overall plot and numerous twist endings. It was a box-office bomb, grossing only $42.8 million worldwide against a $50 million budget. As of 2024, it is McTiernan's most recent film given his subsequent criminal charges and eventual incarceration related to wiretapping.


During a live fire exercise in the jungles of Panama, a team of Army Rangers trainees is led by the fearsome instructor Master Sergeant Nathan West. Sergeant Ray Dunbar emerges from the jungle carrying wounded Second Lieutenant Levi Kendall. The two men are pursued by Sergeant Mueller, whom Dunbar kills in self-defense. Although no other bodies are found, West's team is presumed dead.

Dunbar refuses to talk to Military Police investigator Captain Julia Osborne and insists on speaking to a fellow Ranger from outside the base, drawing an '8' on a piece of paper. The post commander, Colonel Bill Styles, calls in his friend: experienced interrogator, ex-Ranger and now DEA agent Tom Hardy, and assigns him to aid Osborne.

During interrogations of the survivors, they learn that West was infamous for being a ruthless sergeant. One of the trainees, Jay Pike, earned West's wrath for not following orders, and may have staged the murder. Kendall, the son of a Joint Chiefs of Staff general and a homosexual, claims West hated him and may have ordered a "training accident" on him. He claims West died when hit in the back with a phosphorus grenade. When Pike confessed to the crime, Dunbar wanted to turn him in; a firefight ensued and most of the trainees were killed.

Dunbar claims Kendall is lying and that Mueller and his fellow trainee Castro were illegally selling prescription drugs and West became aware of their operation. Mueller used Pike's grenade to kill West and tried to frame Pike. A firefight ensues and several trainees were killed. Dunbar claims that Dr. Peter Vilmer supplied the drugs and falsified tests so that soldiers came out clean. After confessing, Vilmer is placed under arrest.

Styles orders Osborne and Hardy not to talk to Kendall again. They disobey and interrogate Kendall once more, but he suddenly begins vomiting blood. Before dying, he draws an '8' with his own blood on Osborne's hand. Hardy explains a rumor about a group of ex-Rangers in Panama calling themselves "Section 8". They apparently trained under West, turned rogue and became drug dealers.

Styles is furious; he relieves Osborne of duty and tells Hardy to leave. He considers the investigation closed and a CID transport from Washington arrives to take Vilmer and Dunbar away.

Vilmer accidentally reveals that 'Dunbar' is actually Pike, and Hardy removes Pike from the plane just before takeoff. Pike explains that West learned about the actual operation going on at the base: cocaine smuggling. He confronted the Rangers and threatened to turn them in to authorities. After a brief firefight, West and the other trainees were killed. Pike took Dunbar's dog tags and carried Kendall to the extraction point. He gives Hardy, Osborne, and Styles the number of a crate where Vilmer had stowed cocaine.

Hardy confronts Styles, determining he was behind the drug-dealing operation. When West reported the operation to Styles, Styles ordered Mueller and Kendall to kill him in the jungle, then poisoned Kendall to silence him. Styles tries to bribe Hardy before attempting to shoot him; Styles is killed by Osborne, who was eavesdropping on their talk.

As the investigation concludes, Osborne suspects that Hardy is somehow involved in the incident; this is confirmed when she watches Pike sneak into Hardy's car. She follows them into Panama City, where they enter a building with a big eight-ball hanging above. After going inside, she is greeted by West and the missing members of the team – Castro, Dunbar, and Nuñez, who Hardy reveals as his 'colleagues'.

They explain that Section 8 is a covert black-ops anti-drug unit led by Colonel Tom Hardy; the "going rogue" story is a cover to spook the cartels. The agents infiltrated the base undercover to investigate cocaine trafficking and discovered Mueller, Kendall and Vilmer were responsible. West, not realizing Styles was also involved, informed him of the drug dealing. The training mission became a covert Section 8 operation to circumvent Mueller and Kendall and fake West's death in order to extract West from leadership and transfer him to Section 8. Hardy was called in to confirm Styles' and Vilmer's involvement.

Impressed by her work, Hardy offers Osborne a job in the unit, along with the revelation that his position as a DEA agent and his taking a bribe are a cover; he actually remains in the Army as the Section 8 Colonel.



In May 2000, it was announced Phoenix Pictures had acquired James Vanderbilt's thriller script Basic for $400,000 against $700,000 following a heated bidding war with several other studios.[3] In August of that year, it was announced Lee Tamahori had entered negotiations to direct the film.[4] In October, Benicio del Toro and Catherine Keener were announced to be in final negotiations to play the leads.[5] In July 2001, it was announced John McTiernan would be stepping in as director after Tamahori dropped out during realignment with Intermedia.[6]

After development of the project stumbled, the project was realigned when Intermedia came on board as a financier with del Toro and Keener having since dropped out.[7] In September of that year, it was announced John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson would star in the film.[8]


Box office[edit]

Basic earned $11.5 million in its opening weekend, ranking behind Head of State, Bringing Down the House, and The Core. It grossed $26,793,311 in the US by the end of its theatrical run.[2]

Critical response[edit]

Basic garnered negative reviews from critics. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 21% approval rating based on 143 reviews, with an average score of 4.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Basic gets so needlessly convoluted in its plot twists that the viewer eventually loses interest."[9] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 34 out of 100, based on 33 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[10] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.[11]

Roger Ebert wrote that it was "not a film that could be understood", and that "It is all smoke and no mirrors. If I were to see it again and again, I might be able to extract an underlying logic from it, but the problem is, when a movie's not worth seeing twice, it had better get the job done the first time through."[12]

Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle commended Travolta and Jackson for delivering "a couple of fun, over-the-top moments" and Ribisi for scenery chewing "like nobody's business", but felt the film comes across as a "preposterous" mess, saying, "It begins in a muddle and ends in confusion. In between, Basic takes more silly twists than any that might be on display at a Chubby Checker look-alike contest."[13]

Chuck Randolph of Slant Magazine was mixed on the overall cast's performances, commended McTiernan's "efficient technical direction", and criticized the multiple twist endings for putting the film's "straightforward" action thriller story into "kindergarten territory", saying that "Basic is actually boiled down to the most uncomplicated of summations: it makes absolutely no sense."[14]

Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide gave it two stars out of four and wrote that the film "keeps adding layers of confusion so that it becomes less interesting as it goes along! The final "twist" seems to negate the entire story, like a bad shaggy-dog joke."[15]


  1. ^ "Movie Basic". The Numbers. Archived from the original on October 31, 2011. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  2. ^ a b "Basic (2003)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Archived from the original on May 9, 2010. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  3. ^ Harris, Dana; Lyons, Charles (March 29, 2000). "Phoenix wins bidding war for military thriller 'Basic'". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  4. ^ Brodesser, Claude (August 25, 2000). "Tamahori has 'Basic' instinct for Phoenix". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  5. ^ Brodesser, Claude; Lyons, Charles (October 16, 2000). "Kenner, Del Toro gain 'Basic' instinct". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  6. ^ Dunkley, Charles (July 29, 2001). "In 'Basic' training". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  7. ^ Fleming, Michael (June 4, 2001). "Intermedia to coin 'Basic'". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  8. ^ Fleming, Michael; Dunkley, Cathy (September 27, 2001). "Kenner, Del Toro gain 'Basic' instinct". Variety. Archived from the original on March 12, 2023. Retrieved March 12, 2023.
  9. ^ "Basic". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on April 29, 2022. Retrieved March 29, 2021.
  10. ^ "Basic Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on October 11, 2021. Retrieved June 2, 2022.
  11. ^ "Find CinemaScore" (Type "Basic" in the search box). CinemaScore. Archived from the original on January 2, 2018. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 28, 2003). "Basic". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on April 5, 2022. Retrieved June 2, 2022 – via
  13. ^ Baumgarten, Marjorie (March 28, 2003). "Basic - Movie Review". The Austin Chronicle. Archived from the original on September 20, 2020. Retrieved June 2, 2022.
  14. ^ Randolph, Chuck (March 28, 2003). "Review: Basic". Slant Magazine. Archived from the original on June 2, 2022. Retrieved June 2, 2022.
  15. ^ Maltin, Leonard, ed. (2007). Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (2008 ed.). New York: Signet. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-451-22186-5.

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