Broken Arrow

(John Woo, USA, 1996)


As a deathless fan of director John Woo's Hong Kong action extravaganzas (The Killer [1990], Hard Boiled [1992]), I was disappointed by his American debut Hard Target (1993) with Jean-Claude Van Damme. While that film had the feel of a spirited B movie, Woo's new Broken Arrow is a far slicker and more expansive effort. But disappointment is still the keynote for me.

In its relocation to another culture, the Woo formula, his distinctive mix of action, comedy and hardboiled masculine pathos, has been knocked right out of shape. All that remains relatively intact is the spectacular, virtuosic handling of action scenes – and that asset is probably enough for many Woo fans.

The plot is relatively simple. Two military pilots, Hale (Christian Slater) and Deakins (John Travolta), take a Stealth bomber on a secretive test flight. Deakins suddenly ejects Hale and commandeers the cargo – two nuclear warheads – for his own dirty, international dealings. In this largely deserted landscape, the two men (and their various comrades) proceed to play an elaborate cat and mouse game.

World peace is presumably the stake in this story, but you would hardly know it. In comparison to Crimson Tide (1995), here the references to the political intrigues of the New World Order are completely abstract and negligible. The only intrigue driving Broken Arrow is the sheer, almost childlike thrill of wondering when exactly a nuke is going to blow the characters apart.

Travolta is a comic-book villain; his performance is often enjoyable, but never in the slightest bit real. Slater plays the bland good guy with technical finesse. Samantha Mathis has an unfortunate role as Slater's sidekick. She occasionally leaps into the action like Sandra Bullock did in Speed (Graham Yost wrote both films), but just as often she is a dopey damsel in distress. The sight is embarrassing.

In Woo's Chinese films, moments of corny sentiment or old-fashioned banter between the sexes usually provided the trigger for hilarious, uninhibited slapstick. This mood is absolutely foreign to American cinema – so Woo uneasily replaces it with a steely eroticism that surfaces at some surprising moments of the drama.

It is possible that Broken Arrow will be more fun for filmgoers unacquainted with Woo's masterworks than it was for me. As generic action movies go, it is not half as good as Speed, but easily the match of the best Steven Seagal or Van Damme vehicles. Not even a filmmaker as talented as Woo, however, can do anything decent with Jack Thompson's dubious American accent.

MORE Woo: Windtalkers, Paycheck, Face/Off

© Adrian Martin March 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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