If you're planning to see Executive Decision, you may wish to stop reading this for now, as I'm going to reveal a significant plot development within the next couple of paragraphs. I don't do this to spoil anyone's fun--I don't think it will--but because I think the twist isn't a mere gimmick. It's a witty shorthand for the film's principal theme.
Executive Decision looks like, and is being marketed as, an action picture, but it doesn't quite fit into the genre as it is now practiced because its derring-do is not cartoonishly superhuman. Despite some flashy shoot-outs, it really deserves the title of a more difficult and disciplined genre: It's a thriller.
The basic difference between a thriller and an action movie is that, with the latter, we automatically suspend every scrap of our disbelief--not only with regard to the laws of physics and probability and human physiology, but also our ethical skepticism toward, say, the abrogation of due process. With the former, on the other hand, we expect a modicum of realism and believability.
Identifying with the hero of a thriller doesn't give us an action movie's cheap, Old Testament thrill of having the wrath of God in a gun or a fist, but it does allow the subtler New Testament satisfaction of struggling in the face of evil or danger.
In terms of casting, this amounts to the difference between Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal. Russell is a capable actor and certainly at least as fine a physical specimen as Seagal, but in action onscreen he's not a comic book come to life. Seagal is, even though he has no range at all as an actor and an irritating screen persona.
Executive Decision teams these two very different movie stars to fight the bad guys, but one of them never makes it into the fray. Seagal is the leader of an elite corps of commandos that attempts a midair raid on a 747 that's been hijacked by Middle Eastern terrorists. Russell is a civilian accompanying the mission, a Tom Clancy-style, CIA-wonk hero who has figured out that the hijacking's real objective is a nerve-gas attack on Washington, D.C., and the Eastern Seaboard.
When--last call, here comes the twist--Seagal is killed about a half-hour into the film, it's not just playing on the expectations of the audience to throw us a curve, like Hitchcock did when he bumped off Janet Leigh less than halfway into Psycho (if that's all it was, then I would keep mum about it). Rather, it's like director Stuart Baird and screenwriters Jim Thomas and John Thomas' way of pointedly excusing larger-than-life action from their film. Though Seagal has made a couple of tolerable films--Under Siege and its solid, craftsmanlike sequel Under Siege 2: Dark Territory--Executive Decision marks, I'd say, the cleverest use to which he's yet been put in the movies.
The commandos turn to Russell, as well as to another terrified civilian in their party, a design engineer (well-played by Oliver Platt), to take up the slack in their rescue mission. For the rest of the film, Baird uses their improvised maneuverings to build up a good head of tension; when it at last is released in a burst of violent combat and midair emergency, it's remarkably exciting and, except perhaps for a few hokey seconds as the plane is about to land, reasonably believable.
Being set on an imperiled airliner, and involving a team of macho, troubleshooting commandos, the film inevitably also employs some elements of a genre now considered disreputable to the point of camp--the disaster movie. I've always had a little soft spot for disaster movies--for the eclectic casts of has-beens and for the apolitical, equalizing fun of seeing people get themselves out of a serious jam. Like most vintage disaster flicks, Executive Decision is a pleasantly square movie--the sort to which you can, with reasonable safety, take your parents.
The squareness of Executive Decision is strikingly retro because it seems completely sincere. Consider the careful racial makeup of Seagal's gang, for instance--B.D. Wong, Whip Hubley, Joe Morton and an unusually restrained John Leguizamo.
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They're all fine actors, to be sure, but they're also such a neat cross section of U.S. culture--Asian, white, black and Latino--that you begin to wonder where are the farm boy from Iowa and the tough guy who wants to get back to Brooklyn to see the Dodgers play. The commandos are an all-boys club, so distaff heroism is represented by Halle Berry as an extra-daring flight attendant. Berry stays calm and collected, never reaching the heights attained by the wind-blasted Karen Black in Airport 1975. With her smudged eye shadow and mussed-up uniform, Black was the greatest ravaged-stewardess heroine in the history of cheeseball cinema.
But Executive Decision is never more sweetly banal than when it informs us, via subtitle, of where we are in the world. We see an aerial view of the Acropolis and the words "Athens, Greece" appear. A scene or two later, we see a double-decker bus and a red-coated guardsman in a fuzzy hat, and learn that we're now in "London, England." Finally, a shot of the Capitol dome appears, under the legend "Washington, D.C." Isn't that somewhere near Baltimore?
Directed by Stuart Baird; with Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, B.D. Wong, Joe Morton, Whip Hubley and David Suchet.