Review: ‘Broken Arrow’

A virtually nonstop actioner that's heavy on imaginative destruction but light on coherence and character, "Broken Arrow" doesn't score a direct hit but will still do the trick for thrill-seeking audiences worldwide. In a flat-out villainous portrayal, John Travolta continues his winning post-comeback ways as a duplicitous Air Force pilot who steals two nuclear bombs.

A virtually nonstop actioner that’s heavy on imaginative destruction but light on coherence and character, “Broken Arrow” doesn’t score a direct hit but will still do the trick for thrill-seeking audiences worldwide. In a flat-out villainous portrayal, John Travolta continues his winning post-comeback ways as a duplicitous Air Force pilot who steals two nuclear bombs. Egregious continuity gaffes and a pervasive implausibility push this closer to cartoon territory than was absolutely necessary, and director John Woo drives the action at so ferocious a clip that his steering becomes more than a bit sloppy. With an opening weekend virtually all to itself, pic should rocket to a high-altitude debut, fully justifying Fox’s decision to move it from a Christmas bow, before leveling out to “Get Shorty”-vicinity grosses, or a bit less, domestically. Overseas totals loom larger.

Planes, trains, boats, trucks, helicopters, Humvees — just about every mode of transportation is used as the good government guys, led by co-pilot Christian Slater and park ranger Samantha Mathis, try to outmaneuver the bad guys, masterminded by Travolta, before the latter lay waste to the Western United States. This roller-coaster ride through the Four Corners area rarely lets up, for the good reason that any pauses would give the audience time to think about the severe improbability of many of the incidents. As it is, even the least demanding of viewers are likely to raise an eyebrow at a couple of the whoppers.

After an eye-catching title sequence, in which Vic Deakins (Travolta) teaches Riley Hale (Slater) a few lessons in the boxing ring and establishes that he has greater “will to win” than his younger cohort, the two take off in their sleek B-3 Stealth bomber on a night exercise with two live Nuclear warheads. Over Monument Valley, Deakins ejects Hale, safely drops the bombs without detonating them and then pops himself out of the plane before it crashes and burns on the rocks.

At a rendezvous with his sinister cohorts, who plan to extort a fortune from the U.S. government for the return of the bombs, Deakins insists that he has everything under control, but he hasn’t counted on the survival of Hale or the resourcefulness of the latter’s chance partner, Terry Carmichael (Mathis), who happens to be on patrol in the area. Despite their heavy artillery and manpower, the baddies can’t quite finish off their pesky adversaries, who somehow manage to get around on the hostile terrain and hold their own against greater numbers and equipment.

The operative word here is “somehow,” since writer Graham Yost (“Speed”) and action ace Woo play fast and loose with continuity in a way that might have been OK in the director’s more stylized and exaggerated Hong Kong thrillers, but is hard to take in a picture in which credibility is theoretically a factor. A drag race on a bumpy dirt road between two Humvees carrying nukes is good for a few laughs, but this is nothing compared with the incredible jumps that find Mathis’ character, last seen hiding from the villains on a river raft, suddenly hopping a truck and then winding up on a train. How she got from place to place was apparently too much or too boring for the filmmakers to figure out, and audiences won’t be able to come up with the answer.

Still, the big set pieces just keep on coming, from a spectacular underground explosion to the final cat-and-mouse between a helicopter and a train carrying the traitors and the bomb toward Denver and the more intimate face-off on board the train between the two pilots . The stunts and special effects are big and clever enough to satisfy genre fans everywhere, even if the entire plot feels patched together with action scenes concocted to fill out the running time. The spectacular moments have their desired visceral effect, but they seem very calculated, the reactions to them not thoroughly earned.

Travolta and Slater hold their own with the hardware and scenery, delivering the kind of nifty star turns that this sort of vehicle needs. Travolta seems to be having great fun portraying the arrogance, disdain and calculated evil that define Deakins, a man with little motivation for threatening a nuclear holocaust other than superficial greed and revenge.

Slater revives his Jack Nicholson vocal riffs in the early-going but then seems to content himself with flexing for action-hero status, with decent results. Mathis’ lonely ranger gets the shortest background shrift of all, with nothing but a dog waiting for her at home, but she eventually mixes it up as well with some well-placed martial arts moves learned who-knows-where. Football great Howie Long looks completely at home in this rough context, acquitting himself perfectly well in his screen debut as one of the more sensible nasties.

Production values have been piled on where they count, in the equipment, stunt and special effects areas, and are sharp. Hans Zimmer’s score evokes Ennio Morricone on a synthesizer.

Broken Arrow

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Mark Gordon production in association with WCG Entertainment. Produced by Mark Gordon , Bill Badalato. Executive producers, Christopher Godsick, Dwight Little. Co-producer, Allison Lyon Segan. Directed by John Woo. Screenplay, Graham Yost.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Peter Levy; editors, John Wright, Steve Mirkovich, Joe Hutshing; music, Hans Zimmer; production design, Holger Gross; art direction, William O'Brien; set design, Gary Diamond, Jann K. Engel, Luis G. Hoyos; set decoration, Richard Goddard; costume design, Mary Malin; sound (Dolby), David Ronne; stunt coordinator, Alan Graf; train stunt coordinator, Brian Smrz; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; second unit director , Gary M. Hymes; second unit camera, Michael A. Benson; additional camera, Lloyd Ahern; casting, Donna Isaacson. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Jan. 30, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 min.

With

Vic Deakins - John Travolta
Riley Hale - Christian Slater
Terry Carmichael - Samantha Mathis
Col. Max Wilkins - Delroy Lindo
Pritchett - Bob Gunton
Giles Prentice - Frank Whaley
Kelly - Howie Long
Lt. Col. Sam Rhodes - Vondie Curtis-Hall
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff - Jack Thompson
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