Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Broken Arrow (1996)



In the early 90's, interest in Hong Kong action cinema exploded in the US. During this period, the output from that little island which boasted the third largest film industry in the world behind Bollywood and Hollywood, was at the top of its game. Having progressed from the low budget wuxia films of the sixties to the triad movies of John Woo and Ringo Lam in the eighties, the over-the-top attitude and choreography of Hong Kong action cinema made the limp offerings of Hollywood look anemic by comparison.

The nineties, however, were the last gasp of Hong Kong cinema. While Hong Kong still churns out films of admirable quality (like 2002's Infernal Affairs) it has struggled to regain the foothold it once had. The return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 (along with the ironclad censorship the government imposes) spurred many of the industry's key players to move shop across the Pacific to Hollywood.

John Woo was one of the first to cross the pond. His first introduction to America was the low budget Jean Claude Van-Damme flick Hard Target. Plagued by interference from the star and MPAA (Hard Target had to be submitted seven times before it could earn an R rating) the result was a better than average Van-Damme film (which, considering his output, is not saying much). But for those expecting the glory of Woo's past films like A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, Hard Target was a disappointment. Hollywood either didn't understand Woo or Woo just understand Hollywood.

By the mid-nighties, mainstream American audiences were catching on. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's frequent homages (some would argue "rip-offs") of Woo's style primed the pump. Hong Kong cinema fans eagerly awaited Woo's next film, Broken Arrow. With a bigger budget and better stars, they hoped it would be the true showcase of the cult director's abilities to mainstream America.

Once again, they were disappointed.

Broken Arrow's premise is a pretty pedestrian one. John Travolta plays Major Deakins, a stealth bomber pilot who plots to steal nuclear warheads during a training exercise in the Utah desert. He plans to use his warheads to nuke Denver unless the government pays him 250 million dollars (yeah, like anyone would pay that much to save Denver...) and the only person that can stop him is his young co-pilot Captain Hale (Christian Slater) and Terry the park ranger (played by Samantha Mathis). I could waste paragraphs describing every plot hole that Broken Arrow poses, but it would be pointless. Broken Arrow is firmly in the Idiot Action Movie genre, where plot is just something that happens between action scenes. Still, Broken Arrow is dumber than most. Deakins hisses at a subordinate not once, but twice "Don't shoot at the thermonuclear devices!" when another character has already established that the warheads could sit in burning jet fuel without detonating because of their fail safes. And why would nuclear bombs, meant to be dropped from the sky, need to have digital timers? And so on and so forth...

The main attraction of the movie--the action sequences--are disappointing as well. While they are adequately staged, most of the action scenes in Broken Arrow are indistinguishable from any other director's, which is not a good thing since Woo is such a style heavy director. Sure, Christian Slater runs around from time to time with *two* guns, and there's a trademark Mexican stand-off (the doves are absent this go around). Besides that, the gunfights have little of the creativity and beauty that marks Woo's other works. Even the action in Hard Target had more of his distinctive style. The plot of Broken Arrow works against having operatic action scenes since it's more obsessed with military hardware than ballistic choreography.

Bad acting also leeches enjoyment from the film. Christian Slater's Jack Nicholson Lite schtick was cute back when he was doing teen drama and comedies, but it's ill-suited to a hardcore action film. Any chemistry he might have had with his co-star Mathis in Pump Up The Volume is noticably absent in this film (plus, she doesn't get topless in this one). Indeed, her role as the park ranger is pretty superfluous. She's primarily there so Hale can explain the plot to her (and thus the audience) and to be rescued.

But up for special derision is John Travolta. It's not that I really hate Travolta. Like his fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise, given the right role he can be very good. But also like Cruise, he is less successful when a role is hinged on leveraging his so called "charisma". And boy does he work his so-called coolness. Travolta reduces his character of Deakins into a mess of verbal tics and overacting that's embarassing to watch. As a villian, he is neither particularly threatening or likeable, nor are his motivations very convincing. Threatening to nuke a city just because he was passed over for one too many promotions? Gee, could the fact that you're psychotic be the reason you haven't made colonel yet?

Besides the artistic bloodshed, the theme of a John Woo movie is typically a melodramatic meditation on brotherhood, loyalty, and betrayal. Some of this is shoehorned into Broken Arrow, but it doesn't enhance the film. Deakins is portrayed as Hale's mentor (and again I ask, didn't you notice your mentor is psychotic?) though most of his "mentoring" comes in the form of Tony Robbins-like speeches about having "the will to win." Throughout the film, their supposed bond is symbolized through the clunky device of staring at $20 bills; nothing that can compare to the Shakespearean weight of Tony Leung confronting his nemesis in a boardroom with the skull of their former friend in Bullet in the Head. Woo has never been afraid of sappy sentimentality and his fans have always been forgiving of it, but these flourishes feel woefully out of place in Broken Arrow, adding to neither the emotion nor the theme of the movie.

Broken Arrow isn't a horrible movie. It moves along at a brisk enough pace to justify watching it on cable some weekend, or buying it for five bucks at a used DVD sale (like I did). But for fans of John Woo's Hong Kong output, it is a disappointment. It's not that Woo can't operate effectively in Hollywood (indeed, Woo proved he could a year later with the terrific Face/Off). Still, Broken Arrow is, if not the low point in John Woo's lackluster Hollywood career, certainly the "meh," point. It's competent enough to not hate, but passionless enough to not care either.

1 Comments:

Blogger King of Bongo said...

I thought'Face Off' was a better show, but god it's long. Certainly features Travolta overacting.

Keep up with the blog, it makes fun reading!

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