Broken Arrow (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

By another name, Broken Arrow is Speed gone nuclear. Yet, despite all the explosions, violence, special effects, and other choreographed excesses, this film doesn't have quite the same impact. It's fun, to be sure, and the wild ride doesn't let up for a moment, but the level of tension isn't quite as high. It probably has something to do with the premise -- after all, the threat of a nuclear holocaust isn't quite as unique an idea as a bus that will blow up if it decelerates below 50 mph.

According to the movie, a "broken arrow" is the military term for a lost nuclear weapon. Here, there are two, but they aren't really lost. Rather, they have been stolen by Air Force Major Vic Deakins (John Travolta at his most nasty). Vic thinks the military has done him a grave injustice by repeatedly passing him over for promotion, and he's out to get revenge. His demands are simple: $250 million or one major American city will be atomized.

The only two standing between Vic and a luxurious retirement are his ex-partner, Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater), and a Utah park ranger, Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis). They hook up when Terry finds Riley after Vic ejects him from a stealth bomber. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, with Riley and Terry chasing Vic, or the other way around, depending on who has the missiles. There are all the requisite close calls and narrow escapes, but nothing quite as nerve-wracking as watching a bus thunder towards a gap in a freeway-under-construction.

The writer of Broken Arrow, Graham Yost, also wrote Speed, which accounts for many of the similarities. Director John Woo, best known for Hong Kong action flicks like The Killer and Hard Boiled, is in his second Hollywood outing (his previous American film, Hard Target, was a Van Damme vehicle). Woo, whose inimitable style has earned him legions of fans across the world, seems very much at home in this high-tech arena. His characteristic trademarks, such as someone leaping through the air with guns blazing in both hands, are all in evidence. As always, Woo choreographs action like a ballet, creating some of the most artistic violence to be found anywhere.

After playing the protagonist in three straight films (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, White Man's Burden), John Travolta finally gets a chance to try his hand at a despicable-to-the-core villain. And, boy, is he cool. Vic Deakins is one of the most delicious bad guys since Alan Rickman put on a fake German accent for Die Hard. Vic, who loves "having the power of God at [his] fingertips," is smooth, heartless, and very dangerous.

Christian Slater, who plays a radically different role here than in his other current film, Bed of Roses, is an adequate hero. His Riley doesn't have Vic's twisted charisma, but Slater musters enough screen presence to get us on his side. And, while it's nice to see him teamed up again with Samantha Mathis (the two previously joined forces in Pump Up the Volume), the two never really click. Mathis, who seems better suited to movies like Little Women, isn't an especially effective action star.

The preposterous thrills in Broken Arrow take the characters from a fight aboard a stealth bomber to a car chase across the flats of Utah to the bowels of a disused copper mine to a speeding train. The pace is relentless; Woo never allows the excitement to flag. In the end, Broken Arrow is an exhilarating, if empty, experience. It's the kind of thing where you turn off your brain and dig your fingernails into the armrest. It won't be quite as satisfying as a Speed or Die Hard, but there's still enough here to leave anyone exhausted.

Broken Arrow (United States, 1996)

Director: John Woo
Cast: John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley, Bob Gunton, Howie Long, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Kurtwood Smith
Screenplay: Graham Yost
Cinematography: Peter Levy
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1996-02-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1