Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Broken Arrow (1996)

Dir. John Woo
Starring: John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo 

I remember, back in 1996, some people telling me that they had attended a premiere for the film Broken Arrow. They stated that the highlight of the evening was that Chris Barrie from Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire was present. The film they really did not rate. I therefore had understandably low expectations when I placed Broken Arrow on my list of films set in Utah.

And, y’know, it was passable if not particularly great. It belongs to that mid-90s school of action movies which so inspired Michael Bay – spend the budget on special effects and explosions and hope the rest of the film looks after itself. Examples from our cinematic odyssey so far would include Twister and Hard Rain (in fact Broken Arrow and Hard Rain share the same writer – Graham Yost – and one of the stars – Christian Slater). And there are plenty of things that explode in this film, including (but not limited to) a stealth bomber, four helicopters, and a train. Oh yeah – and half of Utah when a nuclear warhead detonates. That’s how extreme the movie is. In any other film the hero would be racing to stop a nuclear warhead going off; in Broken Arrow one goes off and the hero has to race to stop a second going the same way.

Slater stars as USAF pilot Captain Riley Hale. Alongside Major Vic Deakins (John Travolta) he flies the B3 Stealth Bomber. Sent off on a training exercise over Utah he is suddenly attacked by his commanding officer: Deakins intends to steal the warheads and hold the U.S. for ransom. There then follows a game of cat and mouse as Deak’s mercenaries try to make off with the missiles and Hale – helped by park ranger Terry (Samantha Mathis) – attempt to stop them.

As I say, there are plenty of things blowing up all over the shop (particularly helicopters; if you’ve ever had a deep-seated hatred of helicopters this is the film for you). There are firefights in canyons, in trucks, in mine passages and on trains. There are expendable heavies to get walloped (even if some of them do get snarled henchman lines: “You probably thought I was a computer nerd, didn’t you? Wrong! I was a Navy SEAL lady!” or “This is where you get off…”). Shit explodes. And slap bang in the middle we have Travolta hamming his way up a sliding scale of madness. We know he’s a bad guy – he smokes! – for heavens sake, but he really ratchets through the gears here. When we get to the part – which you can see coming well in advance – when someone exclaims “You’re out of your mind!” Deak’s only response is “Yeah – ain’t it cool?” Slater, as in Hard Rain, does a competent job. Mathis runs around handily. 
He had warned her to take more care while shaving
It’s just not particularly well written. People seem to produce guns from nowhere. The characters are never fleshed out. Two major characters – Delroy Lindo’s Colonel Wilkins and Frank Whaley’s adviser Giles – just sort of vanish from the plot. There is a line about “endangered dirt” which I immediately registered as being a Very Important Plot Point – why else would it be in there? But then nothing is ever mentioned of it again. And there is a persistent aura of misogyny. Terry calls Hale “Captain”; he calls her “lady”. Even when she jumps a goon by surprise the goon is able to turn the tables, requiring Hale to rescue her. Sure, she’s brave and she has a good verbal spar with Deakins, but she is still background to the big hard male hero.

Broken Arrow has a couple of good lines (Hale on their training mission: “When the day comes that we have to go to war against Utah we’re really gonna kick ass.” Later, after improvising an explosive petrol can Terry asks “Where die you learn that? The air force?” He replies “New Jersey.”). There were two moments when I actually felt the adrenaline pump that comes from a good action movie. But two moments in an entire film isn’t really good enough. If you are going to sacrifice writing for action at least make it good action. Make it real edge-of-your seat dizzying furious action which leaves you thinking that the characters (whom you should, ideally, care about) could lose. That just doesn’t happen here – despite all the beeping, flashing count-downs that pepper the film. It is a waste of director John Woo’s talents. Broken Arrow is watchable; but you wouldn’t particularly want to watch it twice. It doesn’t even have Chris Barrie in it…

What have I learnt about Utah?
In Broken Arrow we see the same parched landscape and the same red rock canyons as in 127 Hours. The land featured is national park – hence the presence of a feisty park ranger. Who knew park rangers were armed? Rangers have to know the land. Even outside the park – one assumes that if there was copper mining going on until fairly recently that would not be on National Park land. 

Can we go there?
Broken Arrow was set in, over and under Utah (with side trips to Missouri, Colorado and Washington, D.C.). Utah locations include it’s own ‘Little Hollywood’, Kanab, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell. I think the action was actually meant to be set in Canyonlands as reference is being made to "suspicious trucks" entering via the Needles gate.

Filming took place outside Utah too. The scenes on the train were shot on the Central Montana Railroad near Lewiston, right in the middle of the state. From the photos it looks as though the tunnel is located between Danvers and Denton. The trestle bridge seen in the film (the one, I think, from which Howie Long’s Kelly falls) runs over the Judith River, but was badly damaged by floods last year). 

Overall Rating: 2/5

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