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Executive Decision a whiz-bang, if campy, action flick


Directed by Stuart Baird.

Starring Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, and Halle Berry.

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

Claustrophobics beware: Executive Decision is set almost entirely on a single airplane bound for Washington D.C. The movie cuts occasionally to concerned officials in Washington, but you should be prepared to spend a lot of time looking at the engine room, the aisles, and the cockpit. This film delivers the goods, though, and its suspenseful two hours manage to turn its cramped setting to advantage, gaining in tautness what it loses in panoramic setting. If Executive Decision doesn't soar, it at least stays afloat the whole way through.

The conflict begins fast and furious. The plane and its 400 American passengers are hijacked by a squad of heavily armored fundamentalist Muslim terrorists (continuing recent the trend of Arab terrorists as all-purpose villains). The hijacking has been masterminded by the evil Nagi Hassan (David Suchet), who announces he will safely land the plane and its passengers in exchange for money and the release of his spiritual mentor, a world terrorist who is now in U.S. custody. In truth, he has more nefarious plans: He has stocked the ship's cargo with DZ-5, the world's most lethal nerve toxin, and is set on ramming it into the capitol, instantly killing himself and the rest of the plane's passengers and sending a deadly plume of gas over much of the eastern seaboard.

Enter David Grant (Kurt Russell), a Pentagon intelligence analyst who understands Hassan's motivations better than anyone, and Lt. Col. Austin Travis (Steven Seagal), the leader of an elite anti-terrorist unit. In a mission to free the plane from Hassan's hands, Travis suggests deploying an experimental aircraft named the "Remora" (really just a modified Stealth fighter) to intercept the plane and ambush the terrorists before they know what hit them.

The mission is deployed, and the Special Forces team (a multicultural cast headed by the always entertaining John Leguizamo) now has approximately two hours to finish the job, and make the world safe again for mom and apple pie, before the plane reaches Dulles International Airport. A host of complications ensue, including a bomb that resists defusing and a power-hungry senator, who happens to be on the plane, who tries to use the hijacking to further his own political aims. They finally must rely on the aid of Jean (Halle Berry, who plays the damsel-in-distress role with grace), a frightened stewardess who bravely shields Grant and the rest of the crew from Hassan's ever-suspicious eyes. Of course, we know how it's all going to turn out, but the movie still keeps us hooked from one climax to the next with surprising efficiency.

Yes, you've seen this movie before. This is Passenger 57 meets Speed meets Die Hard meets Under Siege, with a little bit of Delta Force thrown in there for good measure. Executive Decision isn't afraid to take a few risks to stray from convention, including killing off one of the principal characters during a dangerous action sequence half an hour into the movie. Still, the movie makes no attempt to disguise its campy techno-thriller sensibilities. Extraneous carnage and explosions abound, and there is enough gloriously nonsensical high-tech wizardry to keep the kids happy. Sure, there have been lots of bomb-defusing scenes in the movies, but how many of them involved using a digital multimeter to perform detailed circuit analysis?

The cat-and-mouse scenario is well-directed by David Baird, a veteran film editor (among his previous credits: Die Hard 2). Baird knows how to frame a spellbinding action sequence, and even manages to milk some laughs from the humorless, cardboard script. And the film does maintain continuity throughout despite a dizzying pace, especially in the requisite pull-out-all-the-stops finale.

The ensemble cast generates a lot of chemistry. Even the normally wooden Kurt Russell turns in a passable performance. The same cannot be said for the constipated, self-righteous Steven Seagal, who at least isn't saddled with the ridiculous prospect of a love interest. Oliver Platt is notable in a comic turn as Cahill, a bumbling civilian aircraft engineer unwillingly drafted to aid in the mission.

The movie's linear storyline and fast pacing do come at the cost of any real characterization. Ethnic stereotyping provides an easy substitute for actual delineation of separate personalities. This is most obvious in the racist portrayal of the team of terrorists on the plane, a group of swarthy, poorly dressed Arabs (most of them played by Westerners) who, with one exception, show little regard for human life. They always seem to be unsure whether they should speak to each other in Arabic or broken English. No subtitles are provided for the Arabic spoken, but they are unnecessary; it undoubtedly has something to do with "Allah's will" striking "into the belly of the infidel." It's probably only a matter of time until Arab villains in movies reach saturation point, and white supremacist skinheads take over their position as chief celluloid crazies.

Despite its flaws, Executive Decision accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is deliver mindless fun and high-voltage thrills, and rattle your nervous system. There's no need to rush to the theaters for this one; it probably wouldn't lose much on its way to video. Then again, it's not likely to become a TWA in-flight main selection anytime soon.