A Thriller With Brains Movie review: With terrific acting go, Kurt Russell! plots and subplots and things going wrong, 'Executive Decision' will have you on the edge of your seat.

March 15, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Certainly the best American thriller since the double hit of "In the Line of Fire" and "The Fugitive" two summers ago, "Executive Decision" is a terrific piece of pop movie making. Has Steven Seagal finally broken through?

Er, no. He's gone in 15 minutes.

But Kurt Russell has finally broken through, big time.

Almost unbearably tense and recalling both the low pleasures of the "Airport" films and the high pleasures of Stanley Kubrick's great "Dr. Strangelove," "Executive Decision" moves like a bat from a volcano, even if it's really not about an executive decision.

It's about a nerve-gas assault on the United States disguised as an apparent highjacking to pressure the government into giving up a recently captured Middle Eastern political terrorist.

It falls to a brilliant but callow intelligence analyst, David Grant, Ph.D (Russell), to figure out that the stolen shipment of nerve toxin DZ-5 is aboard the inbound flight and that at a key moment within U.S. airspace, a button will be pushed. So long Bangor, Maine, and Charlotte, N.C., and all stops in between, we'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when.

But there's a chance to get a Special Forces team aboard the airliner in flight, using experimental technology involving a stealth fighter and a plane-to-plane seal, planned for the space shuttle. Thus the commandos, led by a macho colonel (Seagal), make the transfer, brilliantly tense, and Grant and the designer of the transfer system, an engineer played by sweaty, whiny Oliver Platt, reluctantly accompany them.

But what is so good about "Executive Decision" is that writers Jim and John Thomas evidently based their script on Robert Burns' observation about the best laid plans of mice and men going oft astray. There's a subtextual sense of the fragility of the universe: It's always breaking down and the boys are always scrambling to catch up and overcome its sense of ultimate entropy.

Nothing works as it's supposed to; each solved problem permutates into a new set of problems, which, in turn, call up desperate improvisations and mandate split-second tactical decisions. There's a true sense of intellectual engagement in the film; it's not merely about force, but also about thought, which makes it far more gripping than a bunch of stupid gunfights.

For example, the plane-to-plane transfer is only partially successful: The heroic colonel and half the equipment don't make it through the transfer. But the two prissy civilians do make it. So suddenly it's a whole new ball game three Green Beret sergeants, with not quite enough man or gun power for 10 heavily armed bad guys, plus two cherry, puffy, most reluctant warriors with no experience and maybe no guts.

And just when you think the movie has painted itself into a corner the guys are aboard the plane, what more can happen? it opens out into something deeply fascinating as the commandos crawl through chambers and ventilation systems, insert fiber-optic units into the walls, and watch what's going on in the cabin as they try to set up a plan. Meanwhile, back in the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense is deciding whether to order the Tomcats to lock on and blow the plane with its nerve gas out of the sky, writing off 400 civilians as expendable.

There are brilliant subplots: There's a sleeper among the passengers, who controls the nerve gas bomb. Russell has to figure out who he is. Meanwhile, Platt is nervously trying to disarm the exquisitely complex infernal device. The Navy jets are closing in. An air marshal has plucked his SIG-Sauer from his luggage; the pilots have figured out there are commandos aboard. As a choreography of exquisitely crafted plotting, "Executive Decision" is masterful.

Throughout, the performances are extremely disciplined. I did not miss the glowering Seagal a bit; Russell, frantic, frightened, nervous, tough as a porcelain collie on a mantelpiece, makes a much more appealing hero than the man without fear. As the head terrorist and mastermind, David Suchet comes across with a surprising lack of bombast and self-dramatization, while at the same time eventually revealing the heart of zealotry that makes a suicide-bombing/mass murder attempt seem believable and inevitable.

The secondary roles are equally well acted: The four on-board commandos Joe Morton, John Leguizamo, B.D. Wong and Whip Hubley come across as extremely proficient elite troopers, but also as men, not as robots. And even the vapidly beautiful Halle Berry has a good turn as a flight attendant who deals heroically with the situation.

It just so happens that the night before I'd seen "Die Hard 2" on the tube. What a pig! What a skunk dog! What a massive stupid puke bag of a movie, unclever and brutal, almost fascistic in its crudity and its remorseless violence.

By contrast "Executive Decision" seemed like "The Children of Paradise," with its emphasis on the intelligence and valor of the ,, warriors and not only their willingness to use lethal force, and upon the costs of such ventures in human lives. It's not a great movie, but it's as professional as they come and totally gripping.

'Executive Decision'

Starring Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal and Halle Berry

Directed by Stuart Baird

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (violence and profanity)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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