When I first saw "Broken Arrow," I was probably about 16 or 17 and I thought it was pretty damn awesome. "Yeah, John Woo! With stealth planes! And shoot-outs! And an over-the-top Travolta!" I'm a bit embarrassed of my teenage self, but I suppose that's the case with most people. The real issue here is that "Broken Arrow" has not aged well. It just feels like the result of too many disparate elements, none of which really lend themselves to creating a genuine John Woo movie.
"Hey lady, take it easy. I already shaved once this morning."
On paper it sounds like such a great idea. Considering how much trouble Woo reportedly had working with Van Damme's Titanic-sized ego, it makes sense to hook him up with some classier actors like Travolta and Slater. Who doesn't want to see two of Hollywood's most distinctive hairlines battle for supremacy (and screentime)? And, hey, why not throw "Speed" writer Graham Yost on scripting duties while you're at it? Unfortunately, that's where things went wrong.
Yost's script is a lame-brained plot about stolen nukes that cobbles together action sequences from other, better movies (like "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). There's nothing about it that's suited to Woo's particular talents. At first you balk: how could the writer of "Speed" go wrong? But the more you think about it, the more you realize - as tightly plotted and constructed "Speed" as was, it did have an awful lot of bad one-liners. "Yeah, well, I'm taller!" anyone? And keep in mind that Yost went on to pen "Hard Rain" and "Mission to Mars," two of the biggest flops of the 90's and 00's respectively.
Slater's got a bead on the critic who made fun of his hairline.
Travolta plays the megalomaniacal villain who doesn't care if nukes go off and turn the Southwest United States into a crater; Slater is the military pilot just doing his duty and trying to stop him. Sure, the opening minutes try to establish a rivalry between the two (you know you're in trouble when a movie begins with a boxing match between its two leads), but "saving part of the country from nuclear annihilation" kinda trumps personal revenge. The problem is that this isn't Woo territory; there's a reason that his Hong Kong movies are called "pistol operas." That's because their stories are intimate affairs dealing with passion, loss, and bloodlust. On a large scale with the national stakes so high, Woo falters. Leave the pretentious sense of epicness to Michael Bay.
"Guys, I think our movie's got a problem."
Travolta and Slater have both worked with John Woo at least twice now so it's safe to assume they have a lot of respect and admiration for the man. Slater was probably thinking, "Hell yeah, John Woo! Make me look a bad-ass like Chow Yun Fat." Travolta, on the other hand, was most likely looking forward to the chance to play his first Bad Guy with a capital "B." Again, the problem is that the screenplay hampers them at every turn.
"So tell us again how did you do that steadicam shot in 'Hard Boiled'?"
The only shoot-outs in the film occur in cramped, claustrophobic spaces like a mine shaft or a train car - there's no room for Woo's patented aerial choreography or massive destruction, which is especially disappointing since we just saw him blow up an entire warehouse full of parade floats in the arguably superior "Hard Target." So, no, Slater doesn't walk away looking like a bad-ass, unfortunately. Travolta relishes the chance to chew up scenery but without any inspired dialogue all he can do is over-act and over-deliver his lines (and hold his cigarettes in the most ridiculously effeminate manner I've ever seen). Seriously, some of his best lines are "FUCK!" and "Yeah. Ain't it cool?" simply because his delivery is so off-the-wall.
Notice Travolta's cigarette etiquette. That's how you know he's the bad guy.
The cinematography is a mixed bag: excessive slow motion in scenes that don't call for any, bad mid-90's CGI, and at least one sequence that feels ghost-directed by Sam Raimi (I was waiting for some deadites to attack Slater). The camera is constantly moving; gliding through the air towards its subject. In previous Woo movies like "Hard Boiled" and "The Killer," it served to place you in the scene. In "Broken Arrow," it just comes across like the filmmakers are trying to make each situation feel way more epic and intense than it is. Characters can't just get into an elevator - the camera has to RUSH at them as they do so!
Then we're constantly cutting back to a bunch of White House and military types, who ominously mutter and murmur to themselves about what would happen if nukes went off on US soil. These scenes are obvious padding, and although actors like Delroy Lindo ("Romeo Must Die") and Kurtwood Smith ("Robocop") do their best, they could play these kind of perfunctory roles in their sleep.
These guys have nothing to do with the plot - and they know it!
Look at their faces!
The soundtrack is by Hans Zimmer before he got pretentious, so while the music is quite good you'll have to adjust to the fact that every instrument sounds heavily synthesized. Whenever Travolta walks onscreen Zimmer plays this icy, arpeggio'd, almost "Twin Peaks"-ish guitar line that brings to mind a 1950's ballad. I'm half wondering if it's a direct homage to "Grease." Either way it's totally ballsy for an action movie and it ended up becoming my favorite music motif in the entire film.
Yes John Woo fans, don't worry, there's some action like this in there.
Elsewhere we've got Samantha Mathis in a horribly sexist role as a park ranger that Slater (and the script) constantly talk down to like she's a child, and Howie Long as a henchman that does nothing but stand there and look thick-necked. John Woo, I love you, but I would not have picked this screenplay out of the pile. For Woo fans searching to explore his American filmography, stick with the mulleted action of "Hard Target" or the gleefully schizo madness of "Face/Off."
Andddd the hairline is intact!