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Broken Arrow Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007

Image Unlike too many films being rushed into Blu-Ray or Hi-Definition DVD release, John Woo’s “Broken Arrow” deserves the plush treatment. The movie is crammed with action and a variety of backgrounds—the sky, the southwestern desert, caves, etc., and is full of explosions—at least three helicopters go up in flames—that are peppered with bits of debris, every last one of which is rendered in crisp detail. Furthermore, the sound is rendered in Lossless audio, so your speakers get a full workout—the sound track and score are crystal-clear, and very busy.

The movie itself is good enough, but far from what fans of John Woo’s Hong Kong-made films were hoping would be the stuff his American movies would be. It’s a fast-paced, very thinly-plotted action thriller with a colorful role for John Travolta, which he plays with infectious glee. Late in the picture, an appalled henchman tells Travolta’s “Deak” that he’s out of his mind. “Yeah,” Deak grins, “Ain’t it cool?” Well, yes it is, actually. Travolta is often at his best when being very bad; Woo must have realized this, as Travolta (and an equally well-cast Nicolas Cage) played one of the leads in his next movie, “Face-Off,” where the actors each got to play both a good guy and a very bad one.

The main problem with “Broken Arrow,” apart from lifting its title from a classic Jimmy Stewart Western, is that there’s really very little story here. Deak is a crack Air Force fighter pilot and Riley Hale (Christian Slater) his co-pilot. Deak loves lording it over the slightly younger Hale—and when Deak turns what seemed to be a routine training test of a fighter-bomber into a theft, he’s happy to send Hale to what seems to be his death. But Hale survives, and as Deak dumps the two nuclear missiles from the plane—they’re what he was after—and lets the plane crash, Riley finds himself in the middle of the Southwestern desert with only Park Ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) on his side. As the powers that be back at home base gradually realize what’s going on, Riley and Terry do their best to track down Deak and the team of fellow traitors he’s in league with.

This involves a road race between a pair of Hummers, one of which is hauling the nuclear weapons—“would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?”—Deak growls through clenched teeth at an unwise assistant who’s doing just that. When Riley and Terry wind up on foot, they take shelter in an abandoned mine which, by an impressive coincidence, is exactly where Deak is taking the missiles.

When the big shots learn that Deak has turned both traitor and terrorist—or rather, would-be terrorist supplier—one of the bombs is detonated underground; he means business. The explosion was an early demonstration of what CGI could do other than create photo-realistic dinosaurs: a broad, violent ripple crawls under the desert landscape at lightning speed. It was impressive in theaters, less so at home—and you wonder why the explosion left so few visible effects.

After more guns are fired and helicopters explode, the final showdown takes place on a train carrying the remaining thermonuclear device, plus Riley and Deak squaring off against each other one last time. There are impressive stunts, a lot of tension and more action before the bad guy is (spectacularly, of course) finally disposed of.

John Woo’s Hong Kong films were rich with tense showdowns, carefully staged action scenes, and intense emotional relationships. “Broken Arrow” is like a sketch for a Woo Hong Kong movie, but not the real McCoy. There’s relatively little plot, very few surprises, and only a couple of faceoffs between Deak and Riley. Nonetheless, it can be great fun to watch, as long as you don’t think too much about what’s going on.

Travolta is having such a good time being such a colossally bad bad guy that it’s infectious while Slater is just routinely heroic that you want to see a lot more of Travolta than you do. There are other good actors scattered throughout the film, including Jack Thompson and Kurtwood Smith, but the movie stays centered on Travolta, Slater and an underused Mathis.

While not a showcase for Blu-Ray, the movie itself offers so much variety in its visual textures that the high definition process enhances it a lot. The Southwestern desert itself is full of both gritty and vast textures; even ordinary, black-and-white movies look great when using this landscape well. And the Lossless sound here delivers real dividends. Even the script is textured and witty. Early on, someone explains that “broken arrow” is the standard term for a lost nuclear missile. “What’s scarier,” a secondary character wonders, “lost nukes or that it happens so often there’s actually a term for it?”

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