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John Woo's action magic deserves better story

Broken Arrow

Directed by John Woo.

Written by Graham Yost.

Starring John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, and Frank Whaley.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott C. Deskin

John Woo's second American feature film, Broken Arrow, has the earmarks of action movie success. Having disavowed the Jean-Claude Van Damme star vehicle Hard Target (due to lack of personal control), he's hired better actors: John Travolta and Christian Slater. The final product is visually flawless, and the patented Woo action sequences have lost none of their charm. But there's something fundamentally lacking in the film, though it's hard for me to put my finger on what it is.

The plot is simple by design. Vic Deakins (Travolta) and Riley Hale (Slater) are two Air Force pilots who have a special friendship, as shown in the opening scene which pits the characters against each other in the boxing ring. Deakins is the older, more experienced soldier and pilot, and he teaches Hale a few lessons in the ring - like to not fall for your opponent's obvious next punch, because it could just as easily come from the opposite direction. Hale is also quick to remind his older partner that he hasn't progressed past the rank of major, even after all his extensive experience; could it be a lack of drive or ambition on Deakins' part? But it turns out that Deakins has other plans: to steal two nuclear warheads from the cargo bay of a B-3 Stealth bomber which the two pilots are flying on a predawn run.

The resulting cat-and-mouse chase takes place in the arid Utah desert, and Hale must enlist a spunky park ranger (Samantha Mathis) to foil Deakins' insidious plan. His ostensible goal is to extort money from the military powers-that-be in Washington, D.C.; the people in the Pentagon are the archetypal, slow-witted bureaucrats, more eager to cover up than to take action. Once Hale relays the plan to his Air Force commanders, the reconnaissance mission follows a traditional comic-book path to its logical, predictable conclusion - especially when the girl falls into the bad guys' hands.

One problem is that the characters are too generic. Christian Slater invests his charisma to good effect in an otherwise straight "good guy" role, showing that his career may finally be progressing past a Jack Nicholson imitation. But as a villainous psycho, Travolta just doesn't cut it; his previous roles playing likeable (albeit vice-ridden) protagonists make him ill-suited to be a cold-blooded antagonist in this film. The face-offs between Travolta and Slater in the film feel staged and choreographed, just like in the fistfight which opens the film.

On the plus side, Woo's action scenes are loud, enjoyable, cartoon-like romps. People leaping across a room with both barrels blazing (in slow-motion, of course) continues a long tradition of violent standoffs as individual works of art - influenced by everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Martin Scorcese. A scene in an abandoned mine shaft provides Woo with plenty of opportunities for claustrophobic close encounters with falling rocks and wooden planks amidst the bullets. And one scenario involving an exploding nuclear weapon underground creates a pretty fantastic (if somewhat unbelievable) sampler of the effects immediately following the detonation.

Broken Arrow is rather disappointing: My recommendation is to see it with a clear, uncritical mind and just wallow in the razzle-dazzle presentation. If it weren't for films like Speed, I'd swear I'd never seen this stuff before (in fact, Speed and Broken Arrow were written by the same guy). It's too bad Broken Arrow doesn't have a more substantive plot to chew on; then again, it would've achieved a summer release date if it did.