After crafting God-level action classics back in his native Hong Kong, John Woo inevitably made the leap to Hollywood after his 1992 epic Hard Boiled drew a virtually impassable line through any future endeavors into cordite flecked, bullet spraying insanity. However, while watching Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung annihilate around 75% of the entire criminal underworld in Hong Kong was ridiculously thrilling, there was that underlying angst that made you wonder that even with Hollywood backing him up, could Woo – or anyone for that matter – ever manage to top it.
Well, he came incredibly close – eventually – with the endearingly lunatic Face/Off, but what of the movies that lurked in the void between 1992 and 1997; what became of them?
Well, Woo’s first American feature, Hard Target, saw Jean Claude Van Damme armed with a shotgun and a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet take on Lance Henriksen and his gang of fat cat human hunters in a fun, but flawed, romp that felt like a reboot of the legendary director’s career – but his next film was one that no one ever seems to talk about: what about Broken Arrow?
Best buds Major Vic Deakins and Captain Riley Hale are a couple of pilots in the USAF who are tasked to test fly a new stealth bomber that comes complete with a couple of nuclear warheads on board at no extra charge. However, it turns out that not only is their friendship not as rock solid as Riley once but it seems that Deakins’ actual sanity is in question too because mid-flight he attempts to hijack the nukes before ejecting and crashing the jet into a state park in Utah.
Immediately leaping into action – to put out a cover story – the American government eventually come to realise the enormity of what has happened and soon have to work out how to deal with the issue of one of their own pilots stealing weapons of mass destruction and holding the country to ransom.
Luckily, Hale has survived and after teaming up with gutsy parker ranger Terry Carmichael, he heads out to thwart his former friend, his hired thugs and a seemingly endless stream of backup plans that kick in every time they throw a spanner in the works. Unfortunately, Hale and Carmichael may be playing a deadly game of cat and mouse but Deakins is playing chess and there are parts to his plan that even his backers don’t even know about that consists of the crazy son of a bitch actually setting off one of his new toys just to show the powers that be that he ain’t fucking around.
Can Hale block the plans of his former pal in time or will Deakins’ particular brand of pop culture cool psychosis win out; only numerous helicopter explosions and some creative action movie deaths will settle the score as our two combatants try to settle their scores on a country wise scale.
Essentially Die Hard in Utah with the same kind of rogue military villainy as The Rock (itself released only mere months afterward), Broken Arrow is one of those movies that’s sort of fallen down the side of the sofa when it comes to the 90’s action genre, which is simultaneously a shame, yet completely understandable all at the same time.
You see, while being big, brassy and immensely blow up-able, there’s admittedly something missing from this fast paced flick that treats nuclear ownership like a lethal game of capture the flag and it’s all to do with Woo.
The whole thing feels like Woo’s continuing his on-the-job teaching experience as he tackles the learning curve of how Anericans make their action movies – if Hard Target is him getting used to the culture, then Broken Arrow is him tackling the scale; and make no mistake, Broken Arrow gets pretty lavish with its plot that throws humvees, helicopters, trains and fire (lots and lots of fire) into the mix. You get a lot of bang for your buck here, with the action being pretty varied with gun fights, chases and no less than four (count ’em, four) completely separate helicopter explosions to keep the ever escalating plot in continuous motion like great white shark comprised out of entertaining action cliches, but with highsight, the material doesn’t really lend itself to to Woo’s particular talents.
You see, disappointingly, Woo isn’t using Hollywood money to make a John Woo action film, no, he’s just making a basic Hollywood action movie because he’s so eager to learn and as a result, Broken Arrow feels like an oddly hollow exercise for a man who gave the world super emotional bouts of heroic bloodshed like The Killer and A Better Tomorrow II. I can live without certain, other “Woo-isms” (M:I 2 in particular proved that flapping doves do not a great Woo movie make), but without that tangible, tragic bond between characters that make the bloody showdowns feel like tragic, poetic destiny, it simply feels like it has no heart and the very American friendship between the two leads simply isn’t the same. Deakins in particular seems like a horrible friend even before he goes nuts as he’s introduced to us beating the shit out of his mate during a sparring session to teach him to stand up for himself – because, as we all know, concussions inspire confidence). Matters aren’t helped further by John Travolta’s (launching into his second, white hot streak after the rejuvenating effects of Pulp Fiction) choice to portray Deakins as a swaggering cartoon character of a man who radiates cool like a jacked up air con and comes up with more flamboyant ways to smoke a cigarette that you’d think is humanly possible. It’s a fun performance, but it’s not exactly one that benefits co-star Christian Slater who’s rather bland hero is easily eclipsed by Travolta’s white dwarfed-sized tomfoolery and as a result, struggles to nail those action one-liners. Wisely avoiding Travolta’s hurricane force theatrics are a capable supporting cast that include a game Samantha Mathis, football star Howie Long and that ever chilled, 90’s staple, Delroy Lindo who dutifully eaten their paychecks, but with hindsight, with both Woo’s eagerness to learn how to blow shit up Hollywood style and Travolta’s rampant scene chewing all now seem like an obvious launching point to bring the operatic insanity of Face/Off to the screen.
Taken on that value, I guess Broken Arrow earns respect, if not the kudos, but taken as a typical action joint, it gets the job done with stylish aplomb. Even hamstrung by American rules, Woo pulls out some impressive shit while playing with some big-ass toys such the military’s unconventional and spectacular use of helicopter blades on an unwitting adversary’s rib cage or Howie Long’s unplanned ejection through the wall of a train as it passes over a bridge (and let’s not forget four helicopter explosions) – but hardcore Woo-ists will tell instantly that something important is missing that has far more impact than a couple of wayward nukes.