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Broken Arrow

tn_brokenarrowwoozoneusaBROKEN ARROW is John Woo’s second American movie, and maybe his most generic. Christian Slater (HE WAS A QUIET MAN) stars as Air Force Captain Riley Hale, who’s sent on a test flight with his browbeating mentor and pal Major Vic Deakins (John Travolta, CHAINS OF GOLD) that goes awry. Their experimental bomber is carrying two nuclear warheads to find out if they can do it without being detected via radiation. The trouble is, some low rent DIE HARD sequel type villains are waiting out in the desert for Deakins to intentionally crash the plane so they can steal the missiles and make the government pay a ransom to get them back. God damn dirty bombnappers.

Hale survives the crash and encounters park ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) and Deakins has devised various ways to slow down anybody else coming in to help, so they gotta John McClane and Zeus Carver it out. Slater and Mathis had already starred in PUMP UP THE VOLUME together. Later Mathis would be in another movie that Travolta was in, THE PUNISHER. They’re all fairly likable, but their characters are bland and lifeless compared to a Chance Boudreaux or a Castor Troy.

mp_brokenarrowA Vibe article about HARD TARGET mentioned “Maverick director Quentin Tarantino (RESERVOIR DOGS) is working on a screenplay starring Chow [Yun Fat] and an as yet unnamed American actor, to be directed by Woo.” I wonder if that project eventually became THE CORRUPTOR minus both Woo and Tarantino? We never did get that dream team. Instead we waited three years for Woo to direct Travolta during his post-PULP FICTION career boost. BROKEN ARROW also features Frank Whaley (Brett, the guy that Jules Winfield tells to “say ‘what’ again”), who was big in indie movies around that time because of SWIMMING WITH SHARKS. Delroy Lindo, who plays basically the same boss/exposition role as in the recent POINT BREAK remake, had been getting attention for his performance in CLOCKERS, and had also just worked with Travolta in GET SHORTY.

Screenwriter Graham Yost was also hot from writing SPEED (and he would go on to become the mastermind of Justified). But this is nobody here’s best work.

The action involves trekking through the desert and occasionally getting into various scraps involving various vehicles: Humvee, helicopter, train. No motorcycles this time. Too bad. There’s a major section that takes place in a very soundstagey looking mine shaft. Slater jumps around and does an occasional somersault, aiming his guns in more acrobatic ways than was standard for Americans in that era. But it all feels a little forced, and the rarity of the bullets ever hitting anyone sort of takes away their bite.

There’s a good John Woo moment when a grenade causes a collapse with the two leads on opposite sides. There’s some space above the pile of wreckage that allows them to talk to each other, but it’s too difficult to shoot each other. (Deakins does try.) Hale gets to tell Deakins what he’s figured out about his plan and see how he reacts. It’s kind of like a temporary time out.

You could say that Travolta is having fun. He plays Deakins as happy about being a traitor, showing his weird teeth and joking and doing weird things where he looks away and rubs his chin. I think it’s a little too self conscious, though. He did it much better in his later, better Woo movie FACE/OFF.

He’s got a decent sidekick in square-jawed-and-haired-and-chested Howie Long. He’s an amoral soldier who doesn’t realize at first that he’s teamed up with an actual madman. Whoops. This was the start of an attempt to turn the ex-NFL player into an action star, which culminated in FIRESTORM, a notorious flop that’s much more enjoyable than this is.

It seems like Woo was trying his hand at making a normal, boring American action movie, so he said “You know what, it seems like these Americans like helicopters?” There’s a helicopter that crashes head first after Hale shoots the pilot, and then it flips over, one of its rotors swinging at Terry and almost chopping her up. Later there’s another helicopter that gets knocked out by the EMP of a (questionably contained underground) nuclear blast and crashes, also head first, exploding toward Terry and Hale. Still later, Hale flies in on a helicopter to get onto a train, and then it flies low and uses its rotor to chop up one of the gunmen on top (one of the only gore moments in the movie). The copter ends up crashing when the train goes into a tunnel, exploding three times. Immediately after that a guy is attacking Terry on the train next to a helicopter that they have onboard for their getaway, and she kicks the tail rotor so that it spins and knocks him over. Hale sabotages the fuel line on that copter so that when the pilot tries to start it it explodes.

The standard action movie rule is that if a bullet hits any kind of a gas tank or other container holding flammable liquid, that container will instantly explode. I noticed that John Woo U.S.A. follows a different rule. In HARD TARGET the motorcycle gets bullet holes in it and leaks gas for a while before it gets run over and/or hit again by his bullets and explodes. In BROKEN ARROW the humvee leaks gas from bullet holes, as do some barrels of some sort of flammable liquid that then catches fire.

The score is by Hans Zimmer but also Don L. Harper and Harry Gregson-Williams. One of them I think blew it with the way-too-busy music during the mine sequence, but the slower, more Zimmery stuff would be perfect for a better Woo movie. The guitar parts are played by Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy. I guess that sort of sets the stage for Zimmer’s rock band scoring of Woo’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 four years later.

still_brokenarrowIn researching the history of BROKEN ARROW I found a reference to it being re-edited by the studio, but no details. The credited editors are Joe Hutshing (JFK, SAVAGES), Steve Mirkovich (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, CON AIR, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) and John Wright (SPEED, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE). None of them worked on other Woo movies, and at times it felt to me like they weren’t quite in sync with his style. There are some well choreographed sequences of jumping onto and hanging off of moving vehicles, shooting, getting knocked around, chain reactions that seem like cool ideas but play out a little stiff, like maybe they should be moving a little faster. But this might just be because the actors did alot of their own stunts, and they aren’t exactly Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I always wondered if it was the studio or the bad experience with HARD TARGET that caused Woo to tone down his style to the point of practically seeming like a TV movie here. I think maybe he was trying to be culturally sensitive by respecting the opinions of the stupid motherfuckers who laughed at his operatic style in the test screenings of HARD TARGET. I found an interview where he says that after that experience “I took the time to learn more. I watched TV every day, kept in touch with other people and saw how they talk, how they feel. I found out what the real culture is. Then I had more compassion for the society.” Big mistake.

Other than a (humorously out of place, I must admit) shot of Travolta slow motion strutting into frame to the tune of his theme song…

…there is very little of Woo’s visual style. I did notice one poetic touch that I suspect Woo added or elaborated on: the camera follows a butterfly in flight across the water, meeting up with a large swarm that flutters toward our heroes standing on the shore in the distance. It ends up being mentioned in the dialogue (he says there can’t be radiation in the air, or the butterflies would be dead) but I’m betting the script doesn’t specify such fanciful visual emphasis on them. Also the shot resembles the show-stopping carrier pigeon one that bridges RED CLIFF parts I and II.

Woo actually considers BROKEN ARROW “closer to my style” than HARD TARGET because he gets in a little of his beloved theme of bonding between hero and villain, having them be former partners who sort of have in-jokes with each other, like using boxing terminology and having twenty dollar bets even as they battle over nuclear missiles. In the end when Hale discards the singed twenty left behind by Deakins he looks sad about the death of his former friend.

I feel like BROKEN ARROW is a somewhat forgotten film. It probly doesn’t help that as of this writing Amazon’s DVD and blu-ray links go to an audio cassette of the soundtrack, but the movie’s only-okayness has got to be the main factor. Overall ’96 was not a great year for action movies, but there were certainly better. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, in fact, did the American-helicopter-action so much better that Woo was forced to do a sequel to it. EXECUTIVE DECISION was a better take on a DIE HARD/UNDER SIEGE/SPEED type movie with pilots. THE ROCK in my opinion is not a very good movie, but with Cage’s performance is more memorable and honestly it has a more Woo-worthy honorable villain (maybe thanks to Tarantino’s script-doctoring?). I’ll have to revisit MAXIMUM RISK and THE QUEST, but I feel like those are better. THE PHANTOM, SET IT OFF and ESCAPE FROM L.A. aren’t really in the same genre, but are all movies with action elements that are much more fun and memorable than BROKEN ARROW. I think I also prefer LAST MAN STANDING, as flawed as it is. And I guess we could argue whether BROKEN ARROW is better or worse than ERASER, DAYLIGHT or BARB WIRE.

In fact, this movie is pretty representative of the failed hopes of that period 20 years ago. There were such thrilling new things going on in film in the couple years before that it was easy to get swept up. We were so excited about any John Woo movie, and we were so excited about reborn John Travolta. And then they kept disappointing us with movies that were not quite there. But you know what? We just had to be patient. They worked themselves out after a while. Sometimes great things take time.

BROKEN ARROW does endure in two obscure ways:

1) One of the themes was used as Dewey’s theme song in SCREAM 2, which people still watch sometimes

2) The name “Ain’t It Cool News” comes from the scene where Travolta’s told he’s out of his mind and he says, “Yeah, ain’t it cool?” Weird but true.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 27th, 2016 at 8:57 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Broken Arrow”

  1. I remember being disappointed because there are no real shoot outs. I was such a shootout mark back then.

  2. Yeah this was a huge disappointment to me too even though I’ve grown to like it alright. I think the main problem for me was Woo hyped it up alot by talking about it being a “tragedy” that this deep friendship was broken up, and how heartwrenching it is when we see the look of betrayal on Slater’s face when Travolta tries to kill him in the cockpit. But nope, none of that is on the screen; the antagonists don’t really click when they’re friends, and as an audience we don’t really connect with anybody. I’ve liked Mathis alot in alot of things, but like everyone else she just doesn’t click here.

    This is the rare Woo film where I think the script and concept is actually better than the execution, it’s a cool Cliffhanger/Die Hard scenario unfortunately made generic and kind of forgettable. The awesome theme song and some brief crumbs of great action make it good enough, though.

    One more lasting legacy of this movie – the “Howie Scream” which is probably the second most famous recycled movie death scream after Wilhelm’s. (This may not be the first usage of it, but it’s probably the most prominent example)

  3. Oh, one more thing – my teenage brain actually said “wait a minute, how were they supposed to fit all those bad guys onto this one tiny escape helicopter in the first place? It’s a good thing most of them were killed off already”. A problem also shared by Under Siege 2 even though I think it’s hinted in that one that some of the bad guys were being set up to die.

  4. I went to see this off the strength of HARD TARGET and Woo’s hong kong joints coupled with Travolta’s comeback streak up to that point. I remember when I went to see it the reel was damaged so they offered rainchecks and if you wanted you could stay to see another movie that they’ll screen. That movie? FROM DUSK TILL DAWN which absolutely ended up blowing me away.

    By the time I cashed in the rain check I walked out really disappointed. It wasn’t at all what I expected from a Woo movie with Slater as the lead and Travolta as a hammy villain. I did find Long’s right hand man kinda groovy and back then Mathis was always nice to look at. So at least it had that.

    I was actually considering rewatching this again since it’s been 20 years and I’m much better at accepting things for what they are and not what I want them to be these days compared to when I was 12. Also since Travolta and Slater have given career best comeback performances on two of the best shows I’ve ever seen on cable TV recently it’s a good reminder of their more pulpy days.

    Nevertheless I can’t front like my only response for years whenever anybody brought this movie up was: “Thank God for FACE/OFF”.

  5. *wasn’t:

  6. This was actually my first John Woo film, and I even saw it in the theaters. I haven’t watched it in years, but I do remember enjoying the hell out of it at the time. I was even excited to see the finale of the movie make a cameo appearance in that David Foster Wallace biopic.

    If you look at the film as a John Woo joint, then I can see why you’d be disappointed. But at the time, I was just going in to see a generic action film, and I got something with a little more personality and style than they usually had in the mid-nineties. I still dig the main theme to the point where I was happy to hear Wes Craven steal it for Scream 2.

    I do think that the friendship between Slater and Travolta isn’t quite like the male bonding in other Woo films. I remember thinking that even early in the film it was kind of an abusive relationship. Travolta clearly dominates Slater in that friendship. I always felt that the film’s arc was all about Slater finally standing up for himself. I guess I liked it a bit more than Vern, but those were my thoughts on the movie, as I remember them, from nearly twenty years ago.

  7. neal- I think it is the other way around. The concept is such a cliched and tired scenario made more interesting in the execution. It could have easily become THE MARKSMAN or something equally dreadfully generic, but I think the pacing, that never makes it boring,, the actors, some of the scenes in which they are edited ( the opening credits are Wintage Woo), the relationship between Travolta and Slater, the mentoring of it, like RBatty says. The score by Zimmer is amazing., It is a really fun movie made by a great director making a metteur en scene directors work. An auteur making a journey mans film.And as a result the execution is less stiff than the material provided.

    It may not be Woonderful, but I have really appreciated the film over the years thanks to my worn out VHS.

  8. Yeah, I never really connected with this one either. It felt pretty generic and the characters had no spark. It was also deep into the era of mainstream 90s action where it was less about fighting and more about escaping from calamity. That can work (SPEED is the godfather of this approach and it’s still an entertaining movie) but I like my action heroes to be a little more proactive. I want more “I hope he fucks that dude up” and less “I hope he finds something big enough to hide behind when that thing explodes.”

    But it’s decent. One nice thing about forgettable but watchable movies like this is that you can rewatch them every five years or so and it’s like seeing them for the first time.

  9. I have a soft spot for those 90s studio action movies, so I kinda enjoyed it, but not to the point where I would say it’s actually good. The tunnel shootout was pretty cool, as far as I remember.

  10. neal: It could be Woo was saying that because that is the movie that he signed on to make and maybe even made but the studio didn’t release that version. On the audio commentary to Lost in Space, director Stephen Hopkins continually talks about a completely different good sounding movie that he made. It was really about a work-a-holic dad trying to connect to his son and how much that moved to him because he could relate to it with his daughter. He even gets really introspective and wondering if by doing what he loves he is being a bad father and if he can ever make it up to her. Then the Akiva Goldman parts of the commentary start up and he tells you all about how the studio ruined the movie by removing huge portions of the plot (like the failed father-disappointed son dynamic). So Woo may have made that touching ‘we were once brothers’ movie and remembered that in interviews. Shame we will never see it.

    John Woo also directed a Lost in Space pilot that never got picked up funnily enough.

  11. Speaking of 90’s calamity action films some day I’d like to see Vern reviews of the Morgan Freeman dualogy from that subgenre (CHAIN REACTION & HARD RAIN) which also feature Keanu and Christian Slater respectively.

  12. EPK interviews that take place while the movie is still being shot are notorious for the cast and crew making claims about the great emotional/dramatic/thematic/etc. content of their stories that somehow never manage to make it to the screen. I guess this is the kind of stuff they have to focus on in the moment to keep their heads in the game but it can be kind of embarrassing later when the interview shows up on the DVD and it’s clear that all that stuff was the first thing to go when the producers got involved with the edit.

  13. Yeah I definitely remember in between every single Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, he would kind of apologize for the last one and go on about how this NEXT James Bond movie would be more dramatic and character driven and get to the heart and soul of the man, and then of course we would end up with invisible cars and ice palaces and shit. I think it took him leaving the franchise and doing a low budget indie like The Matador to finally hit those notes he wanted.

    Also it has to be pointed out that John Travolta’s automatic pistol thing in Broken Arrow is awesome. Not quite as cool as Fouchon/Mad Dog’s single-loader pistol from Hard Target/Hard Boiled, but still badass. I actually miss the days when you’d see an unusual gun onscreen and go “whoa what the hell is that?”

  14. In KINGSMAN there was a hand gun that could shoot shotgun shells, but unfortunately that never happend in the film.

  15. The only thing I remember about this movie is when Slater takes Mathis’ gun in the mine shootout, because he was contractually obligated to fire two guns at the same time in a John Woo movie. Otherwise, I think FACE/OFF completely overwrote this movie in my brain.

  16. I actually think it’s quite good for the first half, but it does really fizzle out by the end, definitely pretty forgettable.

    The Zimmer score is still one of his best to this day though

  17. Personally, I got zero problems with this movie. Sure, I was 16 when it came out, but I’ve seen it a dozen times at this point (not for years, now, tho), and I can’t think of any problems now-me would have with it. Travolta is a blast, Bob Gunton is doing his thing and being punished for it, as usual. And I love, love, love Duane Eddy’s guitar. When it popped up in SCREAM 2 I’m pretty sure I bolted upright in my seat. That theme may just be why SCREAM 2 is my favorite horror sequel of the century thus far. Well, there’s not much competition, honestly, but still. But yeah, I’ll go to bat for BROKEN ARROW any day of the week.

    And then the BA opening credits theme kicks in on my randomized Youtube playlist! Hot Damn! I love it when this kind of shit happens!

  18. One thing I really liked about this movie was they never played a romance between Slater and Mathis. I thought it was cool that they were just professionals helping each other out and they shake hands in the end.

    When this movie came out, I loved it. Probably mainly because of Travolta enjoying being so over the top as the villain, but it seemed a solid action movie. Watching it again a few years ago, yeah, it couldn’t possibly feel any more generic. Maybe it was settling for homogenized Woo in ’96, when one year later we got to see pure unadulterated Woo WITH Cage in Face/Off and we knew what American Woo could be.

  19. Can’t remember exactly where I read it, but the Tarantino/Woo collaboration never got further than a treatment by QT that Woo apparently said “doesn’t get it”.

    The only bit of info I could ever find on it was that it was about “a killer” and the treatment was essentially an extended action scene with the main character killing dudes by the dozen, which supposedly led to the remark by Woo (think it was in an interview with Terence Chang?).

    I’ve never liked BROKEN ARROW – too homogenised, and bland: as Vern rightly says it was Woo’s attempt to “fit in” more and rein in the excesses. Which of course begs the question, why did you hire him in the first place?

  20. I like it. I don’t disagree with any of the faults that are pointed out, but despite it’s weaknesses, it still works for me a s a bit of action fluff to while away an hour or so. I just re-watched it about two weeks ago, in fact. I’m also keen for a Hard Rain revisit, as I haven’t seen that since it was released. I think I liked it.

  21. Wasn’t this originally supposed to end with Slater’s character dying? I remember liking the first half and thinking the second half seemed to have scenes missing.

  22. Matthew – the IMDB trivia mentions that Slater was supposed to die at the end, which I think wouldn’t have fit tonally at all. I really like RBatty’s take that the brotherhood/mentorship between Travolta and Slater is an abusive one, and the character arc is about Slater standing up for himself. I picked up hints of that but I really wish Slater didn’t steal Travolta’s $20 at the beginning. Giving the “underdog” character the last laugh and the upper hand at the beginning is kind of counter intuitive even though it works well as a joke.

    Re: the execution letting the script down, I think the best way to sum this up would be the scene in the final fight where Slater gets a crowbar and could totally beat the shit out of Travolta with it, but chooses to throw the crowbar down and fight him with his fists. I mean, that’s great stuff right there – it should totally be a “fuck yeah!” fist pumping moment, but I felt nothing. I don’t know whose fault it was, Slater’s Travolta’s, Woo’s, or a combination of everyone, but a moment like that shouldn’t be squandered.

    Oh and Fred – the movie’s novelization ends with Mathis’ character making a “we should have sex” remark that was basically a variation of whatever Sandra Bullock said at the end of Yost’s Speed. I’m glad they took that cringe-worthy line out, but at the same time i think I’m hyper-sensitive to the Asian=Sexless stereotype and wish Woo left some romance in (especially after cutting out the love scene in Hard Target that you could clearly see in the commercials).

  23. The Original Paul

    April 28th, 2016 at 5:42 am

    I’ve watched this twice. Once when it first came out, where I got “into it” a lot. Then again when I was a lot older, when I didn’t think much of it. Given my experience with other American John Woo movies recently (specifically MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, although I think after rewatching #4 you can safely put me back squarely in the “all M:I sequels are crap” camp anyway) I don’t even want to try BROKEN ARROW again. I’d probably hate it. I can’t remember too much about what I thought was right / wrong with it. I do remember there being a nice shot of a hammer in flight though. (Yep, that’s about all I remember about the action of this film.)

    I’ll go along with the herd mentality on this one and say: at least we have FACE/OFF.

  24. George Sanderson

    April 28th, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Like RBatty, this was my first John Woo film and like Original Paul, I’ve seen it once since and been completely underwhelmed.
    I remember this for first noticing the Wilhelm scream and for it making me think that maybe Travolta just got lucky with Pulp Fiction.
    Travolta’s comeback is a pretty weird trail of cinema. Apart from Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Primary Colours, and Face/Off I can’t really think of anything he has done that I’ve actually liked.
    Silver lining is that it led me to Hard Boiled and Hong Kong action cinema.

  25. Fred, I kind of thought the final line was a sly admission that sex was on the way. Mathis and Slater have won, they embrace, are on a high, and on each other’s wavelength with the ha-ha-I-still-need-to-exercise-my-authority-as-park-ranger goofiness. Very last shot is a pornographically framed close-up of their hands intertwining, pulling together, while Slater says he guesses she’ll have to “take him in.” Ahem.

    This movie gets short shrift in my book. Part of the reason I like it is because it doesn’t hearken back visually to his HK classics; when Hard Target does so, I’m half-happy for more, but half-disappointed that its reheated leftovers. Story-wise it’s a departure, too: Majestyk makes (as usual) a great point that this is more about avoiding catastrophe, and that appeals just fine for me. And yeah, the structure is kind of foursquare and blocky, but the color-in-the-lines quality results here in a good-timey play-acting vibe. Tons of offhand touches to the film too that never swing so hard that they whiff – looking at you, Face-Off….

  26. BTW, the Chow Yun-fat & American movie star project was probably “Men of Destiny” (or was it “Men of Steel”?) It was supposed to be Chow and Nicolas Cage in a story about building the railroads in the Old West. Don’t know what happened with it.

  27. Neal2zod: Yeah, it didn’t look like it was leading up to Slater’s death. If that was ever the plan, I doubt it was much more than a passing suggestion. There’s no way the studio would let the main character die in an escapist entertainment like this movie.

    I found a comment from the script supervisor, Faith Conroy, talking about one of the continuity slips that bugged me:

    “Samantha’s character was supposed to be hiding when the bad guys walk up to the boat. There was a piece taken out there. We filmed a shot where you see the corner of her coat being yanked inside a white storage cabinet so you know that’s where she’s hiding when Travolta pulls back the tarp and she’s not there. I’m not sure why that was taken out. The next time you see her she’s hiding in some bushes and she runs and jumps onto the back of a moving truck. It was felt that the audience would make the story leap and realize she sneaked off the boat and hitched a ride on the back of the truck, where they obviously had transferred the nukes. Then she shows up on the train, which is where the nukes are presumably unloaded from the truck …. I know John had other shots in mind for that sequence but we ran out of time. That piece with the truck was shot at the end of our last day of filming. We were on location and we literally ran out of time and couldn’t shoot anymore.”

  28. Hard Rain is wonderful. I watch it every time it rains in LA, which is admittedly rarely. But it really does everything it can with a flooded out town and I love the character twists.

  29. Crushinator Jones

    April 28th, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I’m sorry to say that I was one of the stupid idiots who thought that Broken Arrow was better than Hard Target by virtue of being more conventional. Fuckin’ hell I was a dumbo in the mid-nineties.

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