On the Fifth Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
Two Stolen Nukes
My original goal for this year's Five Days of Die Hard was to cover the four Lethal Weapons films and then move on to Passenger 57, Wesley Snipe's attempt at the Die Hard canon. Sadly, Passenger 57 isn't available on the streaming services I have so I had to call an audible. Searching Online there's a group, the Die Hard Scenario Wiki (actually a real thing) which considers the 1996 John Woo film Broken Arrow a Die Hard which, sure, why not. Let's do this.
John Woo is a director we've discussed before, most recently in Sci-Fi Saga September when we looked at his (very appropriately named) last film in the U.S., Paycheck. That was a film that utterly lacked the magic of a John Woo film; it didn't have the operatic action and over the top hilarious stupidity that makes you feel like Woo is smashing his action figured together the whole time. You can see why he left the Hollywood system and went back to Hong Kong to make his films as Hollywood's machine didn't treat his style well. Now we get to wonder if one of his earlier U.S. films could do any better for him and, well... kinda. Broken Arrow is at least more fun to watch than Paycheck, that's for sure.
When you think of Woo you want things to go wildly over-the-top. You want scenery chewing performances that for outstrip reality. You want things to cascade and cascade and cascade until you've left Earth's orbit and have reached a new plane of existences where our rules of reality barely apply. You want Hard Boiled or Face/Off, the latter of which is the perfect blend of Hollywood machine and John Woo spectacle. Broken Arrow doesn't quite manage any of that. It does have moments that showcase the proper Woo lunacy but it never reaches the operative heights we have to expect from such a balls-out director. It's fun, but it's no Face/Off.
The film introduces us to U.S.A.F. Major Vic "Deak" Deakins (John Travolta, an American muse for the kind of scenery chewing Woo wanted) and U.S.A.F. Captain Riley Hale (Christian Slater). On a special secret exercise in their B3 stealth jet, carrying two live nukes, Deak betrays Riley and nearly kills him before ejecting his co-pilot rom the jet. Deak doesn't want to return the bombs but, instead, use them to hold the U.S. hostage for a lot of money. The only thing sanding in his way? Riley. Well, and a forest ranger named Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis).
As it turns out, when Deak shoots Riley out of his plane, the co-pilot lands right near the park ranger. The two team up to stop Deak before he's able to put him plan fully in motion and make millions and millions of dollars. They have to track Deak and his whole team of (now ex-) military soldiers as they transport the two nukes across the open plains of Western U.S. Should Deak succeed he'll be a traitor, but a very rich one. Should he fail, though, he'll set the nukes off and blow up a huge portion of the habitable (and inhabited) U.S.. Riley and Terry have their work cut out for them, indeed.
As noted, John Travolta seemed like something of a muse for John Woo. Here was a guy who had just relaunched his career with Pulp Fiction four years earlier (thanks to Quentin Tarantino), and then followed that with a string of hits, from Get Shorty to Michael to Phenomenon. Then he found John Woo and made two films back-to-back with the director, Broken Arrow and Face/Off. You can see why Woo loved this guy as he manages to play the right kind of unreal crazy, a guy so far above the performance that you can see his bites on the scenery from space. Travolta isn't acting here, he is becoming the perfect Woo villain and it works.
Less successful is Christian Slater. If Travolta got what Woo was going for, that over-the-top but in an utterly amazing way, Slater seems to have felt like he needed to rein in the performance, to give something closer to a normal action hero. Slater doesn't even do the great, scenery chewing kind of performance he'd done in films like Heathers or Pump Up the Volume. This is a pretty by-the-book action hero played normally by Slater which actually makes him seem so much more tedious in comparison to Travolta's Deak. In a different movie it would have been fine but not in a Woo movie.
Thankfully if Slater's performance isn't there, the action certainly is. Woo loves operatic action the way Michael Bay stands at attention for explosions. This film has a number of solid set pieces, from the opening fight aboard the jet to chases with helicopters, a gun fight in a copper mine, and a long set-piece on a train that marks the climax of the film. All of the action is great, and is generally well directed (if not always well edited). And through it all you can tell Woo and his people are having fun going smashy-smashy with all their toys.
As far as being part of the Die Hard canon, I can actually see that. It has all the hallmarks of the "like Die Hard but" genre that grew in the 1990s. We have our terrorists, Deak and his boys, looking for a quick score before they head to a tropical island to enjoy their days, while there's a hero and his partner (a convention started by Die Hard with a Vengeance) chasing down the bad guys, foiling their plans before killing all of them. Classic plot setup and this film largely sticks to the standard beats. I wouldn't have put Broken Arrow on the list before but that's only because I'd forgotten this movie exists.
That's the big issue with this movie: it's fun in the moment but utterly forgettable once you turn it off. It has great moments, Woo-levels of action and Travolta-levels of scenery chewing, but it struggles to amount to much of anything in the long run. I think with a better editor to smooth the action scenes, and a different actor to play Riley (sorry, Slater) this could have been a memorable Woo film. Instead it's a decent opening salvo that would eventually get trumped by what was to come from the director.