Die Hard … in Utah?!
Modern action movies have been compared to roller coaster rides, which is true in more ways than one. When you board a roller coaster, you pretty much know what to expect: you’ll be going up and down steep hills and around curves really, really fast. The trick is for the designers of the rides to keep you off balance and entertained with one thrill after another, so that the paying customers don’t feel cheated when they climb off the ride back at the same spot they started from.
One of the world’s best architects of cinematic thrill rides is Hong Kong director John Woo. In the mid-1980s, tired of the comedies and musicals that he was known for, Woo took a chance by directing the tough gangster saga A Better Tomorrow. That film’s overwhelming success led Woo to series of dense, exciting thrillers, climaxing with the action masterpiece Hard-Boiled. The stateside distribution of Woo’s previous film The Killer made him a household word among US action fans. In 1993 Woo helmed his first film for an American studio, Hard Target, which is still Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best picture.
Woo’s second American project finds him playing with a much bigger box of toys. Broken Arrow is the story of Air Force jet pilot Vic Deakin (John Travolta) and his plan to hold a major southwestern city for ransom with two stolen nuclear weapons. Deakin’s plan calls for him to steal the nukes during a training exercise in a stealth bomber over Utah, making it necessary that he murder his co-pilot and best friend Riley Hale (Christian Slater). Unfortunately for him, Hale escapes, and proceeds to screw up his plans at every opportunity.
The script by Speed‘s Graham Yost (with input from Woo and the production team) contains most of the key elements of standard action movies. The first scene of the movie shows Travolta and Slater sparring in the boxing ring – Slater loses the match because he didn’t “want it enough” – and we know that these two will be facing off hand-to-hand at the story’s end. We have the lone hero running around trying to stop the villain’s diabolical plan. We have the pretty girl caught up in the action (Samantha Mathis, as park ranger Terry Carmichael, reunites the Slater/Mathis team from Pump Up the Volume). And we have plenty of serial-style chases, well-choreographed combat, and things that blow up real good.
Woo has always had a fetish for explosives, and here he tops himself once again. The action takes place in a wide variety of vehicles – and Woo blows up darn near every one of them, including four helicopters. For at least the next few weeks, every time I see a helicopter in a movie, I’ll expect it to explode. And, although I don’t want to give away any surprises, the unwritten pact between movie and audience – “Show us a chainsaw and somebody better use it” – is strictly adhered to.
The Woo crew, realizing that the story is outlandish to begin with, instead concentrates on giving us plenty of bang for the buck – and gives the audience a wink while they’re doing it. Most of us have seen our share of renegade military nut cases, so Travolta’s character is played with plenty of humor. He’s not in it for the money or power, but mainly for the fun. Patron’s may balk a bit at the choice of Slater and Mathis as two-fisted action heroes, but to me that just makes their characters much more credible, as well as intensifying their underdog status (significantly, Travolta and his gang – including NFL star Howie Long – are all much taller). Kurtwood Smith (RoboCop) plays the role of the Pentagon chief surrounded by scores of worrying generals, taking advice from aide Giles Prentice (Pulp Fiction‘s Frank Whaley). Even these standard scenes are spiced with comedy.
Broken Arrow even looks different than previous action epics. Cinematographer Peter Levy (Blown Away, Predator 2) gives a rich, clean-edged look to everything. It’s a gorgeous movie to look at, as well as a thrilling one. And veteran composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Thelma and Louise, and many others) also has gone out of his way to provide unusual music. His score is a satisfying mix of 007-style majesty and Dwayne Eddy guitar licks, with even a little bluegrass mischievously thrown into the mix.
Woo’s fans have worried that his move to America would dilute his power, but this particular partnership is a good one. Among Woo’s weaknesses are a tendency towards hilariously overplayed sentimentality. Since American action movies are more glib than sentimental, this weakness is tempered here – we feel the loss of Slater and Travolta’s friendship, without having to sit through any misty-eyed flashbacks. And then there’s fact that Woo sometimes reuses of his ‘trademark’ moves. Since many other directors have been copying Woo, some of these sequences have reached the point of cliché. The more leisurely production schedule seems to have allowed him to come up with fresh material, injecting a lot of excitement into the by-now rote formula of American action movies.
But most importantly, the folks at Fox seem to be on Woo’s side. They don’t want him to conform to their dull standards – rather, they appreciate his talents, and want to reap the benefits of what he can accomplish. After all, these are the people who let Jim Cameron loose with Aliens (and it was rumored they wanted Woo to direct the fourth Alien film).
Woo and his producer Terence Chang have spent the past few years learning the ropes of the American studio system. A younger John Woo might have been overwhelmed by the pressures of Hollywood, but he’s become too wise to lose himself that way.
The Killer is John Woo making a John Woo movie in Hong Kong. Hard Target is John Woo making an American movie. Broken Arrow is John Woo making an American movie with a lot more money. Here’s hoping that next time, it’ll be John Woo making a John Woo movie in America. And don’t forget to send him a box of dynamite for Christmas.