Producer Joel Silver is back in the big-bang business with the taut political thriller “Executive Decision.” The picture’s logic may be a bit fast and loose, but its action-and-excitement quotient is top-notch. This airborne anti-terrorist suspenser is a slick piece of goods with a dark sense of humor, a highly entertaining arsenal of gadgets and a fair share of unexpected developments. Pic has all the earmarks of a box office home run that should play well until the start of summer blockbuster season and translate easily in international exploitation.
Jim and John Thomas’ screenplay borrows liberally from a number of film war horses, in particular the James Bond and “Airport” franchises. At the center is Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell), the head of a Washington, D.C., anti-terrorist think tank. He’s enlisted into a daredevil mission when a group of Islamic militants hijack an Athens-D.C. flight and demand $ 50 million, the release of their captured leader and their own safe passage in exchange for the safety of the passengers.
Grant suspects that the squad is also in possession of a deadly nerve gas that’s capable of demobilizing the entire population of the nation’s capital. He recommends to the war council that the plane be kept out of American air space at any price. So, manpower, technology and speed are of the essence. Anti-terrorist commando Travis (Steven Seagal) assembles a crack team, and Grant goes to weapon designer Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), who takes his stealth prototype out of mothballs to effect a midair assault.
While the air maneuver occurs without detection, both the untried craft and Travis are victims of the trial run. The team has to go into action minus a seasoned leader. Responsibility falls upon Rat (John Leguizamo) to neutralize the lethal chemical, take out the militants and ensure the safety of innocent bystanders.
The basic framework is unquestionably familiar. But the filmmakers and cast are game about twisting it — without completely distorting conventions of the genre. The quick exit of Seagal is an early tip-off that the unexpected is key to the development of the story.
Russell’s credits include a hefty number of he-man roles, but his character in “Executive Decision” relies more on intellect, ingenuity and charm than sheer muscle. There’s a nice little comic touch when, abruptly whisked from a formal affair into the mission, he doesn’t have time to change out of a tuxedo. Upon seeing him for the first time, a squad member wonders, along with the audience, “Who is this, 007?”
But while neither Russell nor any member of the hit team is a Bonded screen spy, they do resemble a dirty half-dozen in composition. The multiracial unit also includes Joe Morton and B.D. Wong, and Platt emulates weaponmaster Q if the latter had been corralled into field service.
Silver has long demonstrated a keen eye for casting top acting talent with either limited screen experience or in unexpected roles; in “Demolition Man,” he made Nigel Hawthorne a heavy. Here, in addition to Leguizamo and Wong, the cast includes Tony winner Len Cariou as the Secretary of Defense and British TV star David Suchet as the terrorist leader. Suchet does his best to provide his character with verisimilitude but cannot completely counter the role’s ethnic stereotyping. Also saddled with a thankless role is Halle Berry, playing a stewardess who discovers and abets the commandos.
The first feature of acclaimed editor Stuart Baird, “Exeutive Decision” greatly benefits from a first-class behind-the-camera team that includes crack production designer Terence Marsh and ace cameraman Alex Thomson. It also gets a tremendous boost from nonpareil gadgetry and stuntwork.
Ultimately, it’s the film’s sly irony that sets it a notch above similar actioners. The Thomas brothers’ script repeatedly draws us down dead-end alleys only to reverse expectation.
A definite spring surprise, “Exexctive Decision” has the invigorating qualities of such recent left-field hits as “Under Siege” and “Speed.”