Watching Broken Arrow is a reminder of how stale and drab modern action movies can be. The second film John Woo made after his move to Hollywood it holds the blueprints to the magisterial weirdness of his next movie, Face/Off, as well as much of what the Fast & Furious franchise would later evolve into. I honestly forgot how fun this weird little movie is.
Filled with impeccably staged action sequences and villains who never seem to know when to shut up, Broken Arrow is pure cornball cheese. Rarely has a movie blown things up so spectacularly. Think True Lies without the overt racism and creepy consent issues. For sure True Lies is a better movie if only because it is self-aware; but Broken Arrow seems to have aged better.
If only because the film is so delightfully full of itself. Bombastic and utterly devoid of subtlety and nuance it charges forward at full speeds rarely stopping for anything, even so much as a cigarette. In fact, watching John Travolta light a cigarette is almost reason enough alone to watch Broken Arrow. The way his fingers twitch and contort, it’s an action so simple and mundane but in Travolta’s hands, he makes it seem like he’s an alien trying to copy what he’s just seen on screen.
So much of the movie is hilariously surreal. This is partly due to Woo’s kinetic direction and Peter Levey’s almost melodramatic frame compositions. The opening credits hover over a white square with the camera slowly zooming in while cutting to Travolta’s Vic boxing with Christina Slater’s Riley. Soon we realize the white square is actually the boxing ring that Vic and Riley are fighting in. While not unique it is a reminder than there was a time when the movie’s style started when the credits started rolling-not after.
To say Broken Arrow is “about” anything is a stretch. It has a plot-ish, sure. But none of it matters; not really. Though the actors do their level best to try and make us think it does. Essentially Vic steals two nukes and intends to threaten the US government while demanding a hefty ransom. A solid plan if ever I heard one.
Though Graham Yost’s script manages some nice little flourishes from time to time. I loved how the movie starts off with Travolta and Slater as partners. If you see the film without all its marketing, it’s easy to think the bad guy has yet to be introduced. Yet, when Vic looks over to Riley and Woo and Levey’s camera zooms in on his narrowing eyes, we realize Travolta is the bad guy.
It’s relatively early but still the heel turn so early in the film is done with such relish it is one of the many joys of Broken Arrow. Hans Zimmer’s score echoes Ennio Morricone’s bombastic overtures as it all but threatens to swallow the movie whole. The film may be a staple of the mid-90s’ mega-budget action genre but by today’s standards, it has an almost operatic tone as every betrayal and plot twist is played to the rafters.
After being ejected from their stealth bomber Slater’s Riley meets up with park ranger, Terry (Samantha Mathis). The scene is classic Woo as Levey’s camera zooms onto both Terry’s and Riley’s hands as they reach for their weapons, extreme closeups. They then alternate cuts, switching back and forth between the two, as both of them turn to face one another and end up with a gun and knife to each other’s throat. If you were ever wondering what 90’s action cinema looked like, its essence is distilled in this one scene.
Broken Arrow is dramatically perfunctory, emotionally hollow, and yet, I couldn’t help but whoop and holler at the exhilaration of it all. Woo’s style is grandiose and inspired by the era of silent cinema. Woo loves allowing us to see as much of the action as possible, but also employs wry editing to make the action seem palpable and vital.
This helps since the movie essentially follows Riley and Terry as they race through the desert, fight Vic and his henchmen, have a shootout in some not so abandoned mines, and end on a runaway train carrying a nuclear warhead. The other one was detonated underground while Riley and Terry were escaping the mines. Don’t ask.
Broken Arrow is absurd in all the best ways. It is a film of long sustained whole notes. Like a train, it is simply intent on barreling towards its inevitable conclusion. It’s the type of movie where its main characters have a bare-knuckle boxing match while an armed nuclear warhead counts down to its detonation.
Woo wisely packs Broken Arrow with faces we recognize on sight. Character actors, so well-known that once we see them, we understand exactly who and what they are. This way Yost’s script doesn’t have to dilly dally with explanations and backstories. We see Delroy Lindo and we know he’s a non-nonsense competent Colonel. The same goes for Bob Gunton’s Pritchett, Vic’s middle man. Though most might know him as the warden from The Shawshank Redemption, he has a face and a history for playing weasley slimeballs.
But Yost’s script adds a layer of unhinged lunacy to Woo’s non-stop action. Tired of listening to Pritchett’s complaining and questioning his decisions, Vic crushes his windpipe with a flashlight, killing him. Travolta then has the inspired reaction of testily hissing, “Hush, hush,” at the corpse.
Travolta’s Vic can be viewed almost as an audition for Woo’s next film Face/Off. His manic and demented cagey energy is a reminder that at one-point Travolta was as reliable as Nic Cage for off the wall and goofy performances. Or maybe it’s because Slater’s Riley is so straight forward that Vic seems so stratospheric by comparison.
Slater’s Riley isn’t boring and neither is Slater himself. His trademark voice, an alto with staccato enunciation, gives his line deliveries a sense of sardonic awareness. Yost’s script seems to at times, to use him as a sort of metaphorical wink to the audience.
One scene has Terry on the hood of a truck with her gun pointed at the driver. Riley is in the backseat with a gun; also pointed at the driver. The driver also has a gun pointed at Terry as he races along the desert road. Riley tells the driver to stop and give up.
Of course, the driver refuses and even comments, “It looks like we have ourselves a standoff.” Riley shoots the driver in the leg, bashes his face into the steering wheel, all while yelling, “No. We. Don’t!”
Mathis’ Terry is a rarity for the ’90s. The decade did not lack for “badass heroines” but Mathis is spared any real objectification that most other sidekicks were subjugated to. Woo and Yost may not give her much to do; they also don’t view her as merely an object to be ogled. Granted there is the almost contractually obligated sexual tension between her and Slater’s Riley, but Woo and Yost don’t get bogged down in exploring it.
If only because the last thing Broken Arrow seems concerned with is anything so complex as human emotions. A good thing too, I can’t imagine how unbearable the movie would be if otherwise. Broken Arrow isn’t that type of movie.
Early on there’s a line, delivered by that great veteran character actor Daniel von Bargen, telling us the warheads could “…lie in a pool burning of jet fuel for five hours. No problem.”
A line is so absurd it’s either meant to explain why the warheads haven’t blown up amidst all the other explosions or to foreshadow the third act climax.
Spoilers: it’s both. I haven’t even mentioned Travolta’s death which is, even by its own in-universe logic, absurd and just plain looney tunes. But that’s the type of movie Broken Arrow is; big, dumb, and oh so much fun.