Techno Prisoners

Except for Arizona as a setting, the current film Broken Arrow has little in common with the like-titled movie of 1950, that wonderful James Stewart-Jeff Chandler Western directed by Delmer Daves. The only other point of agreement might be their inversion of the reactionary values of their respective genres--Daves' film is a triumph of didactic liberalism, while the new Broken Arrow, a brutal "technothriller," undermines the format of the contemporary action movie.

Broken Arrow is here a code term for a lost nuclear weapon. As somebody notes, it's hard to say what's scarier--that it's happened, or that it happens often enough to warrant a term.

Both the hero of the film (Christian Slater) and the villain (John Travolta) are stealth-bomber pilots. While flying a routine training mission in northern Arizona, Travolta suddenly tries to kill Slater (his copilot), who manages to eject. Travolta then deliberately crashes the airplane in the desert, and sets about retrieving the nukes to sell to some shady characters.

Slater, lost in the desert, recruits the help of a svelte and impressively competent park ranger (Samantha Mathis) to track down Travolta and cronies and get the purloined Big Ones back. The rest of the film is basically a big game of bloody capture the flag, with the Southwest as the playground.

The director is John Woo, the fervid stylist behind such Hong Kong cult faves as The Killer and Hard-Boiled. Woo's American debut was Hard Target, a Jean-Claude VanDamme vehicle to which Woo brought a dash more atmosphere than usual for the type, though it was still pretty routine by comparison to his Hong Kong films. Like Hard Target, Broken Arrow is recognizably a piece of Hollywood product, and as such has certain advantages over Woo's Hong Kong stuff--it's cleaner, more coherent, more economical. But it has fewer of the intense, weirdly melodramatic flourishes that make Woo a unique, if limited, talent.

Woo loves duality and dramatic symmetry--he likes Mexican stand-offs, and he loves to pattern his action around a crook and a good guy who are basically the same person, on different sides of the law. Broken Arrow is especially amenable to this interest; assuming that the psych-profiling techniques of the U.S. military are all they're cracked up to be, stealth-bomber pilots probably are all alike.

Where Woo finds a fresh angle on the action-film format is in his exploration of the differences between the two men's competitive senses. Under the titles, we see them sparring (though neither's physique suggests a boxer, other than maybe Buster Douglas). Travolta gets the better of Slater, and afterward lectures him about his lack of "the will to win." He reads Slater's casual attitude toward competition, his quiet, modest manner and his ironic sense of humor as signs of weakness.

Given the characterization of action heroes during the past few years, the audience might easily make the same mistake. Two-fisted action heroes have conventionally become either grim and stoically humorless, like Dirty Harry, or jokers, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis, making smart-alecky remarks to their enemies as they destroy them.

In either case, the attitude underlying modern action heroes is one of cynicism. This grew, probably, out of the wisecracks used by the heroes of both war pictures and swashbucklers. Of course, we were supposed to see that the heroes of those pictures were really idealists. The wisecracks were a way to show that they weren't big-headed about it; they were a variation on the laconic heroes of the Western.

But as actioners developed through the James Bond films into the large-scale shoot-'em-up fantasies of the past few decades, the idealism of the heroes grew ever more tacit, the sneering indifference ever more real. Eventually, the heroes co-opted the cocksure manner once used to tag the villains. Once straight arrows, our action heroes became broken.

That is why Travolta's nasty psycho-bully comes across like the star role, even though he has less screen time than Slater--Travolta's flamboyant, daring manner conforms to what we've come to expect from a hero. "You da man, Deke!" crows one of Travolta's commando henchmen (ex-Raider Howie Long), and Travolta matter-of-factly concurs: "I'm da man."

He's da man, principally, because he's only interested in male power. He's motivated by the will to win. Slater, nominally the hero, comes across more like a supporting character, because he isn't glib--the film's conflict isn't just a game to him. He's motivated by the notion that selling nuclear weapons to criminals might not be such a good idea, and the uncomplicated sincerity makes him seem quaint.

Woo, Slater and Travolta bring out these subtleties in a well-crafted but fairly by-the-numbers script. When Slater and the fetching ranger, fleeing Travolta and company in a Jeep, must cope with a plummeting fuel gauge because of a bullet hole in the gas tank, you may suddenly recall where you've seen the name of the screenwriter, Graham Yost, before--he wrote the (far more witty) script for 1994's Speed. Clearly, Yost believes in sticking with what works.--M. V. Moorhead

Broken Arrow:
Directed By John Woo; with Christian Slater, John Travolta, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Frank Whaley, Bob Gunton, Howie Long and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

Rated

 
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