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Review: “Broken Arrow” (1996)

“I said goddamn what a rush!”
~~Vic “Deak” Deakins

See that quote up there? That’s a taste of what you’re getting in “Broken Arrow,” an absurd and absurdly fun blow-’em-up that owes much to John Travolta’s gleeful turn as a villain. He’s deliciously devious as a villain, probably because his villains bear no resemblance to real bad guys: they are in possession of every card; dead calm under pressure; quick with glib remarks. Travolta’s Maj. Vic Deakins is that criminal who, in the midst of a shootout, takes the time to ask, clenched teeth barely containing the sarcasm, if his henchmen kindly would mind not shooting at the nukes. Can you resist a villain like this? I can’t.

It’s likely anyone watching “Broken Arrow” can’t either, since Travolta is the big draw of John Woo’s absurdly farfetched but absurdly fun blow-’em-up about two military men (Travolta, Christian Slater) locked in a metaphorical peeing contest. Travolta sinks his teeth into some juicy lines and has such a ball doing it that his enjoyment is infectious. The men in question are Deakins, who tries to convince his comrade, Capt. Riley Hale (Slater), that his guts have propelled him higher up the Air Force success ladder than Hale. Despite his relative inexperience, Hale knows B.S. when he hears it: “You love having the power of God at your fingertips. You get off on it.” Bingo. Hale has Deakins pegged as a power junkie with a messiah complex, alright, but he underestimates just how far an addict will go for afix.

As it happens, Deakins is willing to go very, very far, far enough to commandeer a plane carrying two live nuclear warheads and use them to ransom the government for a cool $250 million. If the government’s feeling stingy, Deakins and his pals, including Emmitt (Howie Long, also a hoot), vow to detonate the weapons over Salt Lake City. The demands set into action the loud, blazing game of cat and mouse that is “Broken Arrow,” with Hale and Terry (Samantha Mathis, the plucky sole source of estrogen in all this dudeness), a park ranger caught up in the chase, on Deakins’ trail and determined to disarm the weapons. Action — in the form of numerous explosions, lots and lots of running (sometimes running and shooting happen simultaneously), a gun fight in a mine shaft, helicopter crashes and a train showdown that’s buckets of fun to watch — ensues.

Certainly this sounds a lot like the plot of, well, Generic Nuclear Weapon Action Movie, but what makes “Broken Arrow” a little different (and enjoyably so) is the mix of nonstop action with Graham Yost’s jaunty, sometimes even clever script. Some of the special effects aren’t particularly stunning, some stunts not even remotely believable, but “Broken Arrow” seems to have a sense of humor about that, and the actors even appear to be in on the joke. Nobody, not Hale and Terry, the self-styled “heroes,” takes anything too seriously; certainly, you won’t find any fake-noble claims of “we must save humanity from nuclear destruction” here. What you get instead is Hale killing a bad guy by shooting from between Terry’s legs and commenting, “That was a first for me, too.” Or how’s about a side order of Deakins politely asking “Mr. Pritchett, would you mind stepping outside?” before shoving his corpse out the door of a moving Humvee? These scenes have a kind of self-effacing humor that so many testosterone-soaked action flicks do not.

Travolta can’t help but play along with the whimsy of Yost’s writing, turning Deak into a swell criminal who keeps us guessing as to what he’ll say next since he does, Hale argues, have “a head full of bad wiring.” Hooray for that — the bad guys who act like they have a few marbles rolling around are such wet blankets. Although Slater’s the straight man to Travolta’s loose cannon, he’s not boring; if anything, Slater has a nice slyness and legitimate comic timing and generates a nice amount of sexual tension with Mathis that never spills over into an obligatory sex scene. But Slater, really, plays second fiddle to Travolta, who all but takes a piece out of us.

Grade: B