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Making the Right ‘Decision’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Everything about “Executive Decision” is familiar except how crisply its conventional story is executed. Since most action thrillers think blowing things up is enough to attract an audience, it’s a nice surprise to come across a savvy piece of work that relies on suspense and is as professional as the elite anti-terrorist unit it celebrates.

Yet another film where a handful of heroes is all that stands between the bad guys and the end of civilization as we know it, “Executive Decision” is unremarkable in broad outlines. Yet first-time director Stuart Baird has been so adroit in avoiding mistakes, so in control of Jim and John Thomas’ twisty script, that those who appreciate old-fashioned craft will surely be pleased.

Baird is a two-time Oscar-nominated editor, admired for his action-oriented work in “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard 2,” someone who not only knows where the bodies are buried but also the best way to bury them. And except for the final reel, which tends to overreach a bit, he has kept things moving along at a brisk, no-nonsense clip.

“Executive Decision” is also shrewdly cast, starting with surprisingly effective performances by Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal and extending to David Suchet as the top terrorist, Halle Berry as a steely flight attendant and the eccentric grouping of strong character actors John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Joe Morton, B.D. Wong and Whip Hubley as a crack anti-terrorist team. Given that, the shaky appearance of Marla Maples Trump as a fellow flight attendant must be put down to a whim of producer Joel Silver.

Russell stars not as a tough guy but as the bookish, glasses-wearing David Grant, a think-tank consultant to the Department of Defense. His specialty is a group of Arab terrorists who have managed to commandeer a crowded 747 jet. Their on-board leader, Nagi Hassan (Suchet), is not surprisingly “an extremist in every sense,” and when he demands millions in gold as ransom for the passengers, the U.S. government sits up and takes notice.

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David Grant, however, suspects there is more than simple extortion going on here. What if, he asks, these pesky terrorists have spirited on board a recently stolen quantity of the deadly nerve gas DZ-5, otherwise known as “the poor man’s atomic bomb.” Could Nagi Hassan be planning to wreck unimaginable havoc on defenseless American civilians?

The only way to be sure is to get on the 747 itself, which, thanks to the super-duper Remora F117X, a new stealth-type aircraft with plane-to-plane transfer capacity, just might be possible. Heading the assault team, which includes Grant and the plane’s design engineer (Platt), is Lt. Col. Austin Travis (Seagal), a man so unemotional he makes Mr. Spock look like Sally Field.

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None of this proves to be easy, partly because the situation on the 747 is naturally much more complicated than anyone anticipated. But one of the pleasant things “Executive Decision” does is spread the heroism around, so just about all the actors have their moments to remember.

The Thomases’ script is similarly full of small surprises, creating tension in unpredictable ways despite having a well-worn outline. “Executive Decision” is reminiscent of a previous Seagal vehicle, Andrew Davis’ “Under Siege,” as well as an earlier Davis film, “The Package.” Rather than exploring new territory, it concentrates on demonstrating how fertile old ground can still be.

One piece of old business that “Executive Decision” regrettably did not dispense with is its reliance on Arabs as wild-eyed fanatics. Though no one would deny the existence of these kinds of terrorists, it is painfully unfortunate that the only time Arabs appear in Hollywood movies it’s as blow-up artists. This is lamentable stereotyping and we are all the worse for it.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence and brief language. Times guidelines: moves quickly and does not linger over the violence.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Executive Decision’

Kurt Russell: David Grant

Steven Seagal: Lt. Col. Austin Travis

Halle Berry: Jean

John Leguizamo: Rat

Oliver Platt: Cahill

Joe Morton: Cappy

David Suchet: Nagi Hassan

B.D. Wong: Louie

A Silver Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Stuart Baird. Producers Joe Silver. Executive producer Steve Perry. Screenplay Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Dallas Puett, Frank J. Urioste, Stuart Baird. Costumes Louise Frogley. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Terence Marsh. Art director William W. Cruse. Set designer Bill Taliaferro. Set decorator Marvin March. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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