Friday February 9, 1996
Though it stars John Travolta and Christian Slater, "Broken Arrow" is a John Woo movie from start to finish, which means there are lots of things no one should waste time expecting.
Woo is one of the world's preeminent action directors, celebrated among those who care for singular work like "The Killer," "Bullet in the Head" and "Hard Boiled," none of which will ever be found on a repertory double bill with "Sense and Sensibility."
With dialogue of the "Why the hell are they shooting at us?" variety (when people bother to talk at all), Woo's films are neither strong on wit or characterization nor are their plots models of exposition and narrative clarity: It's often hard to make sense out of what the heroes and villains are doing, let alone why they're doing it. And with the exception of Woo's alter ego, Asian star Chow Yun-fat, no one has ever made much of a fuss about the acting either.
Yet the fans keep lining up, and it's not difficult to see why. Woo at his best is one of the most fluidly cinematic filmmakers working today, gifted with a thorough grasp of the mechanics of action. Audiences go to his movies because the mayhem is nonstop and because the best moments bring on the visceral rush of adrenaline that only pure cinema provides.
Woo's epics all came from Hong Kong, where the director had the luxury of long shooting schedules and could work with what he's called the artistic freedom of a painter. Adapting to Hollywood's mores has been tough for him, and in his first film over here, "Hard Target," Woo had the additional difficulty of trying to fit Jean-Claude Van Damme's awkward star personality into his mix. "Broken Arrow" is a more successful melding of Woo's bravura style with the studio system.
Not one to waste any time, Woo just about flattens viewers with his opening sequence, a volume-enhanced boxing match between Travolta's Air Force Maj. Vic Deakins and Slater's Capt. Riley Hale: The punches land with such impact no one will be reading the opening credits superimposed on the bout.
More than being Hale's superior, Deakins is invariably the winner in their ongoing sporting competitions, and he doesn't tire of baiting the younger man about his pitiable absence of the will to win.
This kind of intense masculine rivalry, traditionally the motor that drives Woo's pictures, heats up considerably in Graham Yost's script when the two men, co-pilots on the supersecret B-3 Stealth bomber, go out one night on a supposedly routine training mission.
Deakins, however, is involved in a plot to steal the plane's pair of nuclear warheads ("broken arrow" is official terminology for lost nuclear weapons) and use them to extort millions from a presumably terrified American government.
And though other military operatives and teams of armed and dangerous men are eventually involved (as well as Samantha Mathis as a helpful and athletic park ranger), it always boils down to Deakins battling Hale across the length and breadth of the scenic American Southwest.
"Broken Arrow" is not the typical Woo movie in that the exaggerated shootouts that made his reputation share screen time with optical special effects that are new to his work. But, collaborating with director of photography Peter Levy, Woo has turned out a slick piece of business, filled with explosions and assorted acts of violence brought off with considerable movie-making skill.
Travolta and Slater handle themselves well, fitting cleanly into Woo's insistence on mythologizing everything in sight. Travolta even has some fun with tongue-in-cheek lines such as, "Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?" You have to forgive a lot in terms of plausibility to enjoy "Broken Arrow," but you're rarely tempted to take your eyes off the screen.
Broken Arrow, 1996. R, for strong action violence and language. A Mark Gordon production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director John Woo. Producers Mark Gordon, Bill Badalato. Executive producers Christopher Godsick, Dwight Little. Screenplay Graham Yost. Cinematographer Peter Levy. Editors John Wright, Steve Mirkovich, Joe Hutshing. Costumes Mary Malin. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Holger Gross. Art director William O'Brien. Set decorator Richard Goddard. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. John Travolta as Vic Deakins. Christian Slater as Riley Hale. Samantha Mathis as Terry Carmichael. Delroy Lindo as Colonel Max Wilkins. Bob Gunton as Pritchett. Frank Whaley as Giles Prentice. Howie Long as Kelly.