It is not easy to find a politically sophisticated action movie about terrorism. As soon as this subject is even approached, hysteria rules. In an instant, the plot unambiguously sets about distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys, as stirring military tattoos blare on the soundtrack.
In Executive Decision, the good guys are stoic professionals with names like Rat, Cappy and Louie; they are incarnated by actors including Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal. These men may occasionally get the jitters or fly off the handle, but when the crunch comes they are expert counter-terrorists, ready to sacrifice themselves for their country and their President.
And the really bad guy in this movie? His name is Nagi Hassan (played by David Suchet of Hercule Poirot fame on British TV), a cold-hearted killer who incessantly raves about "driving the sword of Allah deep into the heart of the infidel" on behalf of the people of Islam. Nagi sets about achieving this goal by hijacking a plane with four-hundred average Americans aboard, and threatening to detonate enough lethal nerve toxin to wipe out a good chunk of the Western world.
It is rare for a big-budget action movie, even a typically braindead anti-terrorist fantasy, to bore me. But Executive Decision managed this sorry feat. Debut director and co-editor Stuart Baird is saddled with a broken-backed plot structure. Once our heroic men manage to infiltrate the hijacked plane undetected (an exciting air-borne manoeuvre), they spend half the movie hiding, scurrying, looking for tools and whispering frantically to each other in the dark.
It is only in the last twenty minutes that the action really starts up, with various lines of intrigue – from stealthy acts of murder to the anxious dismantling of a bomb – all happening simultaneously.
Along the way, the film uneasily attempts to work in a heroic part for an Afro-American woman (Halle Berry as a brave flight attendant), and a glimpse into crisis-protocol back at the White House – although it discreetly avoids actually representing the President (a curious taboo in much American cinema).
John Woo's disappointing Broken Arrow (1996) looks like a masterpiece of action-packed entertainment next to the dismal experience of Executive Decision. This film sadly lacks the comic-book glee of John Travolta's sadistic villainy, or even one central, spectacular set-piece of the kind that Woo can do in his sleep.
In a fleeting, lame attempt at comedy, one member of this wild, heroic bunch yelps as he boards the plane: "I hope there's a good movie on this flight!" Unfortunately for us, there isn't.
© Adrian Martin May 1996