Film Reviews

Woo? Wow!

Given the current state of high-tech trickery available to filmmakers, just about any director with an adequate budget can give you maximum bang for your box-office buck. Add a first-rate stunt coordinator to the mix, and even something as silly as Fair Game can seem at least sporadically exciting.

So why are there so many clunky and graceless action movies around? Because not every action movie director has the kinetic flair of John Woo, the Hong Kong action master whose bravura style has inspired, among others, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. In Woo's films, the little details matter as much as the big bangs. The self-assured gait of a villain in a long tracking shot, or the anxious gaze of a hero seconds before he makes a life-or-death decision, can have as much impact, and be just as memorable, as all the pyrotechnics in a dozen other movies by a dozen lesser directors. As Tarantino himself has noted, "John Woo is re-inventing the whole genre. The guy is just terrific -- he's just the best one out there right now."

Woo first attracted international attention in the 1980s with such viscerally exciting works as A Better Tomorrow (the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong cinema history), The Killer and Hard Boiled. His films from this period are distinctive for their nonstop action, their jaw-dropping stunts and their one-damn-thing-after-another exuberance. But there is heart and soul, as well as sound and fury, in Woo's Hong Kong productions. In The Killer, for example, the entire plot is propelled by the title character's quest for spiritual redemption after he accidentally blinds a pretty singer during a gangland rubout. And in Hard Boiled, an undercover cop needs his own shot of redemption after posing too long as a mobster's hit man, and taking the job much too seriously.

By the time Hard Boiled blasted across movie screens, Woo was being actively courted by Hollywood studios. But even the producers most eager to sign Woo had some doubts about his ability to conform to American sensibilities. As producer James Jacks noted at the time: "There's probably as many people killed in the first scene of Hard Boiled as there are in both Die Hards. So there is a point where you have to think, 'This won't work for American audiences.'"

As it turned out, Jacks produced Woo's first American movie, Hard Target. And, as Jacks feared, the film ran afoul of the MPAA. Woo made a concerted effort to restrain his penchant for balletic gunfights and slo-mo mayhem in his American debut, but that wasn't enough. Even so, the movie remains a rock-the-house action extravaganza that, at the very least, is the best movie ever to feature Jean-Claude Van Damme in a starring role.

With Broken Arrow, his second American production, Woo has more money, bigger stars and, thanks to screenwriter Graham Yost (Speed), a dandy high-concept story. Even more than Hard Target, however, the new movie comes across as John Woo Lite. Not surprisingly, the violence is, by contemporary standards, restrained. But the themes that figured heavily in Woo's Hong Kong films -- honor, loyalty, betrayal -- are also marginal here. And while the wall-to-wall action is certainly impressive, it's frequently presented with a cavalier disregard for logic and continuity. Pay close attention to a scene involving the shooting down of a helicopter -- and try to figure out how the good guy is able to scramble up a cliff wall quickly enough to save the leading lady from a plummeting propeller.

If Broken Arrow were any less entertaining, these and other flaws would be serious distractions. The good news is, Woo still has the right stuff to make a first-rate, warp-speed kick-ass movie. If popcorn movies are your favorite fare, then you'll feast greedily and contentedly on this one. Just don't expect to be as satisfied as you might be with the full-course banquet of The Killer or Hard Boiled.

John Travolta and Christian Slater star as two U.S. Air Force pilots who carry a potentially lethal cargo -- two nuclear weapons -- aboard their Stealth bomber during a special training mission over Utah. Travolta is Vic Deakins, a cynical veteran. Slater is Riley Hale, a brash newcomer. Right from the start, Woo establishes that the two men are not-entirely-friendly rivals. Just as important, Deakins is shown to be extremely bitter -- he's been passed over for promotion several times -- and maybe even a tad unstable. So it comes as no great surprise when Deakins forcibly ejects Hale from the aircraft, safely drops the nukes to the desert floor, then pops himself out of the Stealth before it crashes.

Yes, you guessed it: Deakins and a handful of associates plan to hold the nukes for ransom. (The movie's title, by the way, refers to Pentagon parlance for lost or stolen nuclear weapons.) Unless they're paid a whopping big sum of money by the U.S. government, Deakins promises, "The Southwest will be a quiet neighborhood. For about 10,000 years."

Not to worry, though: Hale survives his ejection, joins forces with a spunky Park Ranger (Samantha Mathis), then tracks down Deakins and his cohorts. This leads to a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase that involves planes, trains, helicopters, Humvees -- and a elevator that leads to the lower depths of an abandoned copper mine. There is much gunfire, many hand-to-hand battles and even an underground nuclear explosion. There also is some perversely hilarious comic relief, particularly when Deakins hisses "Hush! Hush!" at an associate whose windpipe he has just crushed. Mind you, Deakins isn't the sort of criminal mastermind who's usually that harsh while disciplining his accomplices. But, hey, the guy doesn't have the brightest folks in the world working for him. At one point, he actually has to chide a trigger-happy underling, "Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?"

Here and elsewhere in Broken Arrow, John Travolta has a gleefully good time playing a flat-out, no-excuses villain. The sheer joy he takes in his character's egomaniacal wickedness is contagious. Christian Slater cannot help being overshadowed by such incandescent flamboyance. Even so, he manages to establish himself as a credible action hero. Samantha Mathis is more difficult to accept as a park ranger with an unexpected talent for martial arts. (Sorry, but she looks about ten years too young for the part.) On the other hand, she does come across as more substantial and self-sufficient than your standard-issue action-movie heroine. And there is something refreshingly clever about the way Woo refuses to allow her and Slater to interrupt their life-or-death struggle for a quick tryst, or even a brief kiss. But then again, this is in keeping with the spirit of Woo's Hong Kong movies, which, despite their violence, offer a chaste, even chivalric depiction of women. Old habits, like great movie villains, die hard.

Broken Arrow. Directed by John Woo. With John Travolta, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis. Rated R. 104 minutes.

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Joe Leydon