Movie review: ‘Broken Arrow’

Say what you will about any innuendo and criticism that dogs John Travolta about his personal life, but I find that he’s almost a sure bet to turn out a solid, watchable film. I’ve rarely been disappointed in one of his films from “Grease” in the 1970s (click here for my look at it) to “Urban Cowboy” in the 1980s to “Pulp Fiction” in the 1990s to even playing an eclectic character in “Hairspray” in the new millennium’s first decade. Travolta is watchable and delivers consistently to his audience and so today I’ll look at one of his lesser-remembered action films: “Broken Arrow” with Christian Slater. It’s very good and you should check it out if you haven’t seen it.

‘Broken Arrow’
(1996; 108 minutes; rated R; directed by John Woo and starring John Travolta, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and updated links on May 20, 2018.)

I’d have to say that I like “Face/Off” better in the pairing of actor John Travolta and director John Woo, but their first effort together is “Broken Arrow” and it’s pretty good. The action sequences are signature Woo and Travolta elevates “Broken Arrow” beyond the pedestrian shoot-’em-up it could all too easily have been.


Woo, who has worked often with terrific action actor Chow Yun-Fat (he’s listed as Yun-Fat Chow on, took a step up in Hollywood with “Broken Arrow” in 1996 and would go on to “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible II.” He can tell a tight tale with just the right amount of “over-the-top” to make sure his audience doesn’t settle too much in their seats.

In “Broken Arrow,” Travolta and Christian Slater are two U.S. Air Force pilots and Travolta is the trash-talking know-it-all who likes to pour it on to Slater either verbally or in a boxing ring. The pair takes off on a training mission with two nuclear devices in their stealth bomber and Travolta tries to kill Slater as he begins his own mission of stealing the nukes to sell. However, Slater survives and begins chasing Travolta and the bombs across the barren Southwestern landscape and is aided by a park ranger.

The action the moves from one crash site to another; to a mine where one of the two stolen nukes is detonated; down a river; and finally to the climax aboard a train. Of course, Slater comes out on top; the good guys win; and Travolta is the best actor here.

Woo’s direction is solid and the special effects (especially the ground literally moving in the atomic blast in the mine) are really solid, but he is best knowing how to use violence in sequence and in slow motion (remember Sam Peckinpah?) to the absolute best effect. He gets more out of every gunshot or explosion than most directors can manage.

Here’s a look a some of the principal cast:

  • With the exception of the funky way he holds cigarettes and appears as if he’s being pretentious or dealing with his first pack, two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Travolta conveys his character “Maj. Vic ‘Deaks’ Deakins” just perfectly. He’s an arrogant and pushy know-it-all and just about as opposite of egalitarian as you can find. He remains tightly in control but cannot help but flash emotion through sharp words, a gesture or just a glance. It’s not his best work, but Travolta here is better than in “Grease” (no problem beating that one) and certainly better than as a magazine writer in “Perfect” (the aerobics-themed film with Jamie Lee Curtis). He was nominated for “Pulp Fiction” and “Saturday Night Fever” and I liked him better in “Urban Cowboy” than either of those two nominated films.
  • A Golden Globe winner and two-time nominee (not for this one), Slater is very smooth here as the heroic and tenacious “Capt. Riley Hale.” He doesn’t disguise his intelligence but he doesn’t flash it around, either. Slater is a nice balance to Travolta in their scenes at the beginning and end of the film show. Like Travolta, a glance is all it takes at times from Slater to convey his intent. Slater has also been in “Windtalkers,” “3000 Miles to Graceland” and “Very Bad Things.” I believe his best work is as “Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano” in “Mobsters,” but also enjoyed his win and nominations for TV’s outstanding and surprisingly creative “ Robot.” BTW, I say “Mr. Robot” is “surprisingly” creative since there’s such a lack of creativity in Hollywood and on TV today.
  • The best actor after Travolta is Samantha Mathis as park ranger “Terry Carmichael.” She can either be concerned about some of the park’s “protected dirt” or punch out some dude. Mathis is truly excellent here in her effort to show vulnerability as well as being tough and able to hang in with Slater through thick-and-thin. Her best scene is with Travolta over the controls of one of the nukes. He’s caressing her face and neck with a pistol while giving her orders to program the nuke (it comes off as almost a love scene), and she exudes both terror and excitement at the same time. Mathis went on to “American Psycho” and “The Punisher” with Travolta plus a string of TV roles (including “Royal Pains” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) after “Broken Arrow.”
  • Delroy Lindo does a good job here as the tough, stoic and efficient “Maj. Max Wilkins,” who is the officer in charge of recovering the nukes. Lindo is smooth, direct and tries to be calming, but he is, after all, chasing a couple of missing nukes (each a “broken arrow” in military slang). Lindo isn’t as over-the-top good here as he was in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” with Denzel Washington and he’s also been in “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “More American Graffiti.” I also liked him in “Get Shorty” with Travolta (click here for my review).
  • The supporting character with the most promise and whose actor’s work coming in just behind Mathis’ park ranger is “Giles Prentiss,” who is played by Frank Whaley (you’ll remember him better as “Brett” in “Pulp Fiction” with Travolta). Whaley, who plays an assistant to the secretary of defense, is the intelligence agent is as smart as Travolta and keeps things moving forward on the government’s side. In a rare let-down by Woo, Whaley’s character effectively disappears before the big train chase and you wanted to see much more of him throughout the entire film. He has also been in “The Doors” and “Field of Dreams” as well as TV shows such as “Psych” and “Ugly Betty.”
  • Former pro football great and NFL commentator Howie Long does an excellent turn here as Travolta’s sidekick and partner in crime. Long is just right as the soldier who turns against his fellow soldiers and is very smooth and convincing. Outside of doing sports, Long has been on TV in “Malcolm in the Middle” and in only four films (including “Broken Arrow”). In an interesting trivia note, Long played Tom Hanks’ implied life partner in “That Thing You Do!” (click here for my review), but you’ll only see him in the extended version since his single scene was cut from the theatrical release.

I believe the most difficult thing to accomplish in an action film is the segue from one scene to the next. Most action directors just use a stereotype as a bridge since all they care about is the action, but Woo manages to keep things rocking with smooth transitions throughout “Broken Arrow.”

All-in-all, you can do a whole lot worse than watching “Broken Arrow” again. If you haven’t seen it, check it out soonest. You won’t be disappointed.

Broken Arrow” was the 20th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1996 with $70.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. On a budget of $55 million it ultimately brought in $150.2 million worldwide, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Independence Day” with $306.1 million.

Assorted cast and film notes (via

  • It’s fun to see Kurwood Smith as “Secretary of Defense Baird.” You almost expect him to yell for “Kitty” or at “Eric” from his iconic TV role as “Red” in “That ’70s Show.” He’s not bad, but the role isn’t exactly big enough for him to develop. Smith has also been in films as varied as “RoboCop,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Rambo III.”
  • Another TV veteran, French Smith from “3rd Rock from the Sun,” has a small role here and doesn’t make any impression at all. He’s also been in “Stargate” and “Leaving Las Vegas.”
  • It would have been a mistake, but Jennifer Aniston was considered for the role given to Mathis. I don’t know. I like Aniston’s work (especially in comedy), but I’m not sure she would have been good here. Watch her in “Just Go With It” (click here for my review) or “We’re the Millers.” Lauren Holly also was considered for the park ranger role. You can see her in “Down Periscope” (click here for my review) and would have been better than Aniston – but I’m not so sure better than Mathis.
  • Finally, to the relief of anyone who likes “Broken Arrow,” the very boring and limited Helen Hunt turned it down in order to make “Twister.” She certainly didn’t do much there, but managed to spoil it less than she would have detracted from all the positives of “Broken Arrow.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2018.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner
is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that
full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples
with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.