Say what you will about innuendo surrounding John Travolta’s 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 to “Urban Cowboy” in the 1980s to “Pulp Fiction” in the 1990s to even an eclectic role 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.
(1996; 108 minutes; rated R; directed by John Woo and starring John Travolta, Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis)
TRAVOLTA GIVES GOOD VALUE IN ACTION
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 Woo’s signature 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 IMDb.com), 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 (homage to Sam Peckinpah?) to the absolute best effect. He gets more out of every gunshot or explosion than most directors can manage.
With the exception of how he smokes cigarettes (looking here as if he’s being pretentious or dealing with his first pack and unsure of how to pose with one), Travolta conveys his character “Maj. Vic ‘Deaks’ Deakins” just perfectly. He’s arrogant, pushy 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).
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.”
The best actor after Travolta is Samantha Mathis as park ranger “Terry Carmichael,” who can either be concerned about some of the park’s “protected dirt” or punch out some dude. She is really excellent here. She is vulnerable but tough and hangs in there 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.
Delroy Lindo does the 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.”
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 current 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.
“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 notes (via IMDb.com):
- 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 varied roles from “RoboCop” to “Dead Poets Society” to “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).
- Finally, to the relief of anyone who likes “Broken Arrow,” the very boring 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.”
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