Some films just age weird.
Some simply have some social norms and behaviours that have regrettably aged like milk while others find that their plots end up being rendered overwhelmingly unfortunate due to some unforeseen political upheaval that changes the global landscape overnight.
Comfortably into the latter category crash lands 1996’s, Tom Clancy-esque action/thriller, Executive Decision, a star studded, glossy, Joel Silver produced epic that sees Middle East extremists (mentions of Islam were edited out of some prints of the film) hijack a commercial passenger plane with the endgame of obliterating the entire eastern seaboard with a powerful chemical weapon hidden on board.
Of course, merely a few years later, the truly harrowing (uncomfortably similar) events of 9/11 now casts the the movie in a light that makes it seem like horribly naive bout of retro-active wish fulfilment that paints a fairy tale world where everyone comes home and evil is punished. For the purposes of this review, I’ll aim to judge it on it’s own merits (probably not wise considering Steven Segal’s in it), but the shadow of that notorious day still looms long.
Passengers of Oceanic flight 343 find that overpriced peanuts and leg cramp is the least of their worries when their plane is hijacked by terrorists led by Nagi Hassan who claim to want their imprisoned leader released, but actually have used their demands to hide their real aim – to destroy the nation’s capital with a payload of deadly nerve gas.
Whispery special forces type, Austin Travis, has tried to locate the gas before and he and his team are tasked with a incredibly sketchy mid-air raid that would see them get aboard after sneaking up on them in a stealth jet and gaining entrance with an airlock connecting the two aircraft. Along for the ride is Jack Ryan-esque intelligence consultant, Dr. David Grant who immediately gets off on the wrong foot with Travis when its revealed that it was Grant who supplied the Intel for the botched mission to first retrieve the gas and joining him is nervous engineer Dennis Cahill to provide help with the technical aspect of the boarding.
Almost from the get-go, shit goes South impressively hard, when, during boarding, the seals of the airlock come unstuck sending Colonel Travis hurtling into the void like a glowering missile and leaving Grant and second-in-command angrily debating how to proceed and worse yet, bomb expect Cappy suffers a fractured vertebrae which leaves him utterly immobilized and as likely to successfully disarm a bomb as someone born with balloons for fingers. If the mission hadn’t become complicated enough, no one actually knows what Hassan looks like in the flesh, they’ve no way to call off the inevitable missile strike by American jets and the team discover there’s a mystery sleeper among the passengers who could detonate the bomb early if things don’t goes exactly to plan.
Wesley Snipes certainly never had to deal with this shit in Passenger 57.
Executive Decision is one of those 90’s action movies that could coast by on it’s cast alone as it contains such familiar faces as Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Joe Morton and the somewhat out of place visage of a visibly bored Steven Segal – we’ll get back to him later – and barely a minute goes by when you’re not sitting bolt upright in your chair, pointing at the screen like that Leonardo DiCaprio meme from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood while loudly yelling “that’s whats-his-face from thingy!” and immediately going onto IMDB to confirm it. It’s something of warming experience, which is strange considering we’re dealing with global terrorism, but you genuinely feel like you’re with a reliable ensemble as everyone fills their parts with professional aplomb. Russell’s patented everyman aura puts him in the running for the being one of the greatest Jack Ryan actors who never actually played the character as he projects a sweaty “I don’t know if I can do this” attitude despite the fact that’s it pretty fucking obvious that he bloody well can. Elsewhere, the impatient support, the plucky support and the panicky support are all supplied by Leguizamo, Berry and Platt respectively who each get in Russell’s face, bend over backwards to help or need constant reassurance to ratchet up the tension whenever it needs it. In fact Johnny Legs’ single minded douchebaggery makes up for the fact that the rest of his team are fairly nondescript in comparison with the charismatic Joe Morton spending the majority of the film unable to move due to a conveniently inconvenient bump to the neck.
In fact, the entire plot could be described as that is the movie gains most of its white knuckle moments derive from the script mercilessly shitting in our hero’s cereal at the drop of a hat by having virtually nothing go to plan from the moment Colonal Travis manages to fall out of a stealth jet mid mission. It’s a tactic that proves to be mostly successful, but oddly for a film that was directed by an ex-editor (Stuart Baird in his directorial debut), some of the film could have benefited from some judicial snips here and there that might have tightened up some of the flabbier aspects of the action – Russell being allowed not one but two shots at landing the plane during the climax is hardly all or nothing sort of stuff.
The villain stuff, however, is… unfortunately what it is, I guess. With some unchecked, 90’s, Islamophobia running rampant here and there (one of the terrorists balks at the idea of using the bomb as he states that it goes against what Islam stands for – which I guess means that every horrible act they’ve perpetrated up to that point is just fine) and a plan that doesn’t make all that much sense (why just not smuggle in the bomb if you always were going to detonate it?), the fact that the terrorist leader is coldly portrayed by David Suchet ends up being a little disorienting as I most recognize him solving crimes with his tiny moustache in the british Poirot TV series.
However, in amongst the desperate acts of sweaty stealth, desperate ingenuity and think-on-your-feet-heroism stands the emote-free zone of Steven Seagal, who, lest we forget, was a legitimate Hollywood draw at this point in his career. Watching him sharing scenes with such stars as Russell, Morton and Leguizamo initially feels as weird as seeing Big Bird stride confidently onto the set of Goodfellas, but even though the slick haired action star initially looks as out of place as Leatherface manning the till in a branch of Wimpy (surely he’d be flipping burgers, right?), his much publicised exit from the film at around the 40 minutes mark gives us the action movie equivalent of Marion Crane literally taking an early shower in Psycho. Weirdly exciting, unintentionally hilarious and smart storytelling all wrapped into one memorable movie moment – if Steven Seagal can join the “mile die club” before the mission even bloody starts, then what choice does anyone else have – that gives the famously unself aware sensei a heroic demise that sees him hitting terminal velocity all the way to the bank.
Loaded with 90’s cliches both good, bad and somewhere inbetween (how does the entire flight seemingly take place during the golden hues of magic hour?), Executive Decision may be something of an accidently uncomfortable watch these days, but it still fulfills its action credentials to form a watchable distraction.