Directed by John Woo
Written by Graham Yost
I know that John Woo's Hollywood career probably isn't really underappreciated. For starters, it's been appreciated: his Hollywood movies made the director a household name, a rare enough distinction for anyone, and it brought his Hong Kong filmography (the rock upon which his legacy still rests) to the attention of an audience far broader than just his preexisting fans. Besides that, in their day, Woo's films were hugely successful and popular. Starting in 1993 with the troubled and perfunctory (but nonetheless fun and stylish) Hard Target, Woo kept making money for his American studios right up until the dual stumbles of Windtalkers and Paycheck back-to-back in 2002 and 2003, respectively, whereupon our faltering auteur decided to cut his losses and go home, preserving some measure of dignity. And yet, and yet: for all that Woo's American period is still remembered almost two decades later, it's not always remembered especially fondly.
Personally, I like almost all of Woo's American movies (Mission: Impossible 2 is the only one that I would call "bad," and even it embodies so much of his personality that I can't hate it). But they have rarely generated much in the way of passionate, serious defense. Meanwhile, just by being John Woo movies—and this is hardly limited to just his American work—there's not a single one that fails to implicitly invite a certain measure of derisive disbelief. (If it's in English and was financed by 20th Century Fox and not Golden Princess, I guess it's just not as charming, is it?) Thus it seems nowadays that the only Stateside Woo movie that folks still like enough to bring up with any frequency is Face/Off, and then mostly for the camp possibilities of Nic Cage doing a John Travolta impression and vice versa. Myself, I'd argue the merits of another American Woo film, his first collaboration with Travolta, as his finest moment in the Hollwyood sun.
Being literate and having clicked on a link with the film's (admittedly awful) poster above it, you have likely guessed I mean 1996's Broken Arrow, which takes its name from a U.S. armed forces reporting code, and, as was tediously litigated already back in 1996, it's the "wrong" one, though I think it's worthwhile to point out that 1)to the movie's secondary cast, its plot does initially look like a Broken Arrow incident, not an Empty Quiver, and 2)while Empty Quiver would be a perfectly fine title for a romantic comedy, it'd be a terrible fucking title for an action thriller. Both terms, anyway, refer to the mishaps that sometimes occur with nuclear weapons, and hence Woo's film of Graham Yost's screenplay represents Woo taking on the most important subject of his career, tapping into the mid-90s zeitgeist's growing unease over America's aimless post-Cold War military machine, as well as its panic over unchecked nuclear proliferation, in a film that makes a brave, principled, and nuanced argument for securing our world's strategic arsenals.
I am kidding. Broken Arrow is about the theft of a nuclear device because nukes are the coolest things that anybody could steal. In fact, it's actually about the theft of two nuclear devices, because, in Yost and Woo's sound judgment, wouldn't it be a waste of their premise if they let their villain steal a nuke but didn't let him set it off? As it turns out, such generosity to its villain is maybe Broken Arrow's most distinctive quality. Its willingness to give him two nukes, so he can detonate (at least!) one—well, that's simply the most obvious way it shows its love.
That villain is Major Vic "Deak" Deakins (Travolta, top-billed and not only because he was at his post-Pulp Fiction peak), a USAF pilot ordered to fly a stealth bomber on a mock low-level penetration run over the Southwest with a pair of live B83 thermonuclear bombs, so as to determine if their low-level radioactivity could give away the aircraft. (This actually makes a scary amount of sense.) Deakins' co-pilot for this mission is Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater), and we're given just enough time with the two men before they board their bomber to get a powerful sense of the toxic dynamic between them: Deakins has appointed himself as something like Hale's mentor, not exactly with Hale's consent, and uses the opportunity to bully the junior officer with a constant needling that Deakins insists will make him a stronger man; Deakins' favorite venue for this is an ongoing series of boxing matches that he always wins. For Hale's part, I think we're invited to conclude that Deakins isn't even entirely wrong, with Hale coming off as a bit of a slacker, faster with a quip than decisive action (which is why Slater was as good a casting choice for Hale as Travolta was for Deak). What Hale doesn't know is that Deakins has his own agenda for this mission, but Hale catches his first clue when Deakins nearly murders him in the process of crashing their aircraft—and only after cutting loose both of their bombs in the middle of the desert, for later recovery by his associates on the ground.
Indeed, it winds up revealing itself as a massive conspiracy, financed by mobsters (represented by a mouthy Bob Gunton), and undertaken by disaffected servicemen (represented with the most lines by football star Howie Long, who essays a good meatheaded lackey). The basic plan is nuclear blackmail. Hale, however, recognizes immediately that holding two nukes in his hands is already an end in and of itself for his psychopathic friend. Unfortunately, Hale's only just now waking up on the desert floor, finding himself in a confrontation with Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), an overzealous park ranger who, despite their violent introduction, will become his chief ally in a quest to find and neutralize the madman with the bombs.
Of all his American films, Broken Arrow finds the best balance of West and Woo—maybe the biggest distinction between Woo's Hong Kong and American efforts being the fact that, for some reason, all his American movies (Windtalkers, I suppose, notwithstanding) have the wackiest cartoon plots, in addition to Woo's customarily wacky cartoon execution. But Broken Arrow, despite its Bondian scenario, is the most grounded of them—sufficiently grounded, that is, to be read as the comic book version of something that kinda-sorta could actually happen. So, rather than drawing undue attention to the absurdity of its plot mechanics (to the point that the movie becomes more about them than anything else, e.g. Face/Off), it's able to use them as the vehicle for one of Woo's best action melodramas about the relationship between a pair of men. This is where Travolta becomes indispensable, effectively playing the Joker—or, even more elementally, a Goddamn dragon. He's a creature who exists almost expressly just to test Hale's mettle. (Regarding his decision not to bring Hale into his conspiracy: "If you'd said no, I'd have just killed you. I was afraid you'd say yes.") Accordingly, Deakins dominates what "should" be Hale's movie, with Travolta delighting in his wickedness in ways that I imagine won't shock anybody who's seen Battlefield Earth, though it's a much better-integrated performance in a vastly-superior film; in all due recognition that Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty (shit, Phenomenon or Michael) demanded "better" acting, Deakins is my favorite Travolta performance of the 90s, which, by default, comes close to making it my favorite Travolta performance period.
Deakins and Hale are thereby granted just enough specificity so their antagonism can possess a human dimension, if not precisely human proportions: for example, Travolta's implacably fake Southern accent, or the ways he explicates his character's warped sense of purpose; on Slater's side, it's the sarcasm that doesn't quite mask how Hale seems to accept that fighting Deakins is his destiny. I'll also spare a word for Mathis, whose career never worked out as well it should've: it's about as 90s as a role could get, but whatever you think of the trope, Mathis' ranger is one top-shelf example of that decade's spunky girl sidekicks who could simultaneously serve as the hero's sexy prize and as a driver of action in their own right. Mathis doesn't exactly transcend this, but she does go a little sideways with it, giving Carmichael a rough tomboyish quality that tends to round her character, justify her prowess, and even renders her into a less objectified figure than usual, or (at the very least) objectified in different ways that value her for different reasons. She also generates cute chemistry with Slater, allowing their obligatory romantic subplot to exist almost entirely inside their rapport as actors, plus a few silly, suggestive turns in Yost's screenplay and Woo's direction that still fundamentally work—to their immense credit, Mathis and Slater are able to make a handshake kinda hot. So, with these performances, a world-shaking premise, and its desert setting (it's the closest Woo ever got to making one of his beloved American Westerns), Broken Arrow manages that sense of mythic sweep that Woo's other American movies don't, but his Hong Kong movies could.
It naturally bears the stereotypical Woo tics and tricks. This is sometimes bad (though Broken Arrow may have the smallest amount of gross post-production slow motion in Woo's American filmography). This sometimes makes things childishly simplistic, and you just have to accept that (the plot revolves entirely around keypads on air-delivered nukes). Mostly, though, Woo's great, working in tandem with his utterly-essentialized story. Consider how he opens with a boxing ring suspended in a void, emphasizing that the combat between its deuteragonists isn't just the only thing that matters, it's the only reason their universe even exists; or the disaggregated, impressionistic presentation of his action trademarks (dual wielding? that's a big check); or the way that Woo dispenses with strict continuity in favor of highly-charged, emotionally-subjective editing, allowing time itself to falter around his characters (my favorite single shot of the film is Woo's extreme close-up of Travolta's deranged dagger eyes in the moment he begins to execute his plan). It even finds a place for nudging irony ("Looks like we have a standoff"/"NO WE DON'T" [kills henchman], though obviously this is neither the first nor the last standoff that Woo deploys here). Hans Zimmer's score is an invaluable friend, imposing a more stately and even meditative mood upon the proceedings here, with his electric country-rock strings. Indeed, whether by way of a studio clampdown, or Woo toeing the line for an audience he wasn't sure he understood, there's a greater restraint to Broken Arrow than any of the films on either side of it: it's flashy, but intelligently rather than indulgently, and it never reaches the level (as one suspects sometimes happened with Woo) of a director attempting to drown out the bad screenplay he was given with whirling visual insanity. In any event, it is the only Woo film, as far as I know, that has no place for doves—take that as you will.
Not that I mean to suggest that it isn't all about explosive operatic action in a deeply 90s vein, because, boy, is it ever, with a parade of fistfights, gunfights, and leaping, grasping struggles around Deakins' pair of maguffins. It's emblematic of 90s action cinema in all the best ways: well-paced, serious enough to engage with but too joyful to be taken the wrong way, less nasty generally than its 80s counterparts but certainly able to surprise you when it is. Particularly, Broken Arrow may hate helicopters more than any movie ever made: every time a helicopter appears, it will be destroyed, and somehow each one, center of its own setpiece, goes down in its own novel way, not least the airborne nuke-recovery team who eat it in an EMP that sends their ride plummeting like a rock. (Cue the objection, "that's not how EMPs work!", which is more condescending than this zany actioner ever is.) Where Broken Arrow trips over itself, unfortunately, is where it commits the error of reconnecting Hale with his military support (while putting Carmichael in a position of damsely distress that Yost had resisted right up until this point). It bleeds the tension from a film that's been deeply, almost exclusively committed to Hale and Carmichael's thriller-inflected desperation, giving Hale back his initiative exactly one act too soon. It's also dumb dead weight. I have no particular dislike of this film's yakky cutaways back to HQ, where Delroy Lindo, Kurtwood Smith, and Frank Whaley bureaucratically exposit our crisis—these scenes help buffer out the action, provide a needed sense of apocalyptic stakes, and even give the film its name—but once they collide with Hale himself, it becomes clear that Yost has written himself into a corner he didn't even want to be in, and thus, with the full might of the U.S. military now arrayed against Deakins, they inevitably send Hale in more-or-less alone, more-or-less explicitly just to rescue his chick.
I won't say it doesn't right itself: the finale on Deakins' nuke train is the strongest sequence of the whole film, and it ends the story precisely the way it had to end. But it's after an unfortunate misstep for a movie that's otherwise done what it's set out to do perfectly. For all its Americanness (Zimmer's score, its military-centered WMD plot, its on-paper-shoehorned-in romantic subplot, its curtailed gore and less adventuresome action choreography, its Hero's Journey storytelling, and maybe above all its Fordian setting), Broken Arrow nonetheless comes the closest to Woo's Hong Kong poetic actioners in substance, turning his eyes again towards a bloody masculine friendship, only this time throwing betrayal into the mix, examining a male duo torn apart by their inherent violence rather than brought together by it. It has enough flaws that I wouldn't call it a masterwork, straight-up. But it's a movie I never get tired of watching, one of John Woo's best from any continent.