Hong Kong's John Woo wows with 'Broken Arrow' Movie review: When Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo turns John Travolta loose, the results are a real thrill.

February 09, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Who put the bam in the rama-dama-slam bam? Who put the boom in the bing-bang-boom-boom? Who put the yow in the wow-pow-yow-yow? Woo, that's who!

I wax anti-poetic, but this is a way to express the following reality: With "Broken Arrow," the great Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo not merely becomes a fully fledged American director, but finds a way to harness his remarkable dynamism and power to American story traditions and cultural norms, and all but reinvents the action thriller.

A definite guy thing, the movie follows as one slightly nutsoid American stealth-bomber pilot, passed over for promotion too many times, decides to go into the ransom business, by kidnapping two nuclear devices and threatening to blow up a nice little city if he doesn't get his $250 million.

But the wrinkle here is that the pilot (played by John Travolta) doesn't really expect to be disliked for his enterprise. He's so effervescent, so deeply amusing, so convinced of his own infernal charm, that he fully expects the world to rejoice in his cleverness and seems only a bit ticked that it refuses to.

In fact, so sure is Woo of Travolta's power to seduce that he simply backs off and lets him work. As Vic Deakins, Travolta brings a new dimension to the terrorist impersonation: This is terrorist as game-show host, an endlessly inventive font of charm and narcissism and self-serving grandeur. He is the most amusing nuclear terrorist you ever saw.

Sucking madly on cigarettes, his bright blue eyes beaming like ++ industrial-strength lasers, his icy lips pulsating with wisecracks, he manages to make nuclear terrorism look as if it would finish very highly in the Nielsens.

One day, on a training mission with live nukes, he suddenly tries to kill his co-pilot, Riley Hale (a game Christian Slater); failing, he punches the button and deposits Hale into midair at the bottom of a chute. Then he dumps the unarmed bombs into the Utah desert, bails out himself, and with a crew of goons, sweeps up the warheads and heads off to pure mischief.

Meanwhile, the perturbed Hale bonds with a feisty female park ranger (Samantha Mathes), and the two scramble to catch up. Hale has an unusual advantage in that having co-piloted all those years next to his pal, he knows how his mind works, its subtleties, its tendency toward feint and maneuver. As the bombs move toward the city, Hale and Mathis close on Travolta and his minions (including Howie Long, imposing but not memorable) time and time again.

The sequences play out around modes of transportation or against varying landscapes. One, for example, takes place in an abandoned mine shaft, where Deakins and his guys have planted a nuke. Hale and his new pal Mathis attempt first to disarm it and, failing that, to get out of the way before the bomb detonates. (Only in Woo could nuclear detonation be a throwaway stunt gag!)

Moreover, the subtext is psychological: The duel of wills between two men, one of whom has always assumed the dominant position vis-a-vis the other, but who discovers that maybe he isn't quite the bull stud he thought he was, and that the littler guy knew some surprising moves, too.

Described that way, "Broken Arrow" sounds almost like a rational document, a story put together out of the tissue of emotion, motive, opportunity and decision.

Well, allow me to disabuse you of that polite notion: It is rather a poem of action, a tapestry of incredible visceral conflict set to secret rhythms so powerfully primordial that they seduce you without connection to the rational part of your brain.

The idiocies sail blithely by, the hero's incredible fortune in always finding maps, tools and weapons not merely handy but which perfectly match the situation. You notice but you don't care; you've given it up for the power of the rush.

Woo is less a storyteller than a weaver of kinetic images, a man to whom the universe, far from seeming a stable arena in which to stage action, seems plastic, infinitely manipulable to be twisted and molded to his impulses, despite the laws of physics. He is an extraordinary craftsman, and he brings a quality of almost dream-like intensity to "Broken Arrow."

This has always been Woo's gift, and he even deployed it in "Hard Target," but in that film he wasn't quite able to get the proportions right. The writing was idiotic, the star a vain jerk, the plot unsurprising.

Here, the script, by Graham Yost, generates a good deal of bitter wit that sounds feasible and expressive in the mouths of smart punks like Travolta and Slater. And the excruciating sentimentality that informed Woo's Hong Kong work, even in films as violent as "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled," has been scraped from the project, either because of Woo's rigor and quick adaptation skills or at the behest of an intelligent producer.

In any event, with this film, Woo ceases to be a cult filmmaker, and we are the richer for it.

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