So Bad it’s Good: Broken Arrow (1996)

Broken Arrow (1996)
Director: John Woo
Starring: John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Bob Gunton
Plot: An Air Force major turned terrorist steals two nuclear weapons from his downed craft. The only one who can stop him from detonating them is his co-pilot, accompanied by a park ranger.

Broken Arrow is a film about two competing Air Force pilots, Major Deakins (Travolta) and Captain Hale (Slater) on a top-secret flight of a B-3 stealth bomber over the Utah Desert. Halfway through the flight however, Major Deakins turns on Hale and releases the unarmed nuclear weapons, ready to be retrieved by Deakins’ team of terrorists. After being ejected from the craft, Hale wakes up in the middle of the desert confronted by a park ranger (Mathis) who, after an initial struggle, accompanies Hale in attempt to stop Deakins, whose mental instability could lead him to doing something drastic with his newly acquired nuclear arsenal.

The movie marks the second in John Woo’s American films after emerging out of China as a highly rated and well established Director. Woo was keen to prove himself after his disappointing American debut Hard Target (1993) which didn’t quite live up to the heights he had previously achieved in China with the explosive Hard boiled (1992). Determined to do better and with two strong leading actors in Slater and Travolta, there was a lot of expectation and belief that Woo would be able to give America a taste of his talent. Broken Arrow never quite reached those expectations and, unfortunately for Woo, became another disappointing entry into the filmmaker’s filmography. Whilst the movie wasn’t exactly a failure in terms of its reception or profit, it didn’t do Woo’s reputation any favours and became just another of the explosive gun-fests that the 1990s seemed to cook up on an almost constant basis. Even so, Broken Arrow is an entertaining watch for all the wrong reasons and has truly failed to stand the test of time, though I have no doubt a lot of people would consider it a guilty pleasure.

Woo, who was famous for his intense and choreographed action scenes, arrived in America and revolutionised slow-motion action sequences. Whilst this hadn’t been uncommon with action films in the early 80s and 90s, Woo overused it to the point where half of the film’s running time was a presentation of this technique. Almost every explosion and shootout scene, of which there are a lot, incorporated slow-motion to the point where it became laughable. The over the top scenes of helicopters exploding and henchmen biting the dust is only emphasised in slow-motion, but due to the nature of the scenes, they never get old nor repetitive. Woo’s ability to pull off outrageous action scenes never really translated into his American films, because as entertaining and fun as they are, they were not as different or unique as they were in his chinese films,  instead looking cheap and rushed.

The over the top action sequences do, however, go hand in hand with Travolta’s wacky performance as the unhinged Major Deakins, who Travolta specifically chose when he was given the choice to play either the good or bad guy. The Grease and Pulp Fiction actor delivers a hilarious and extremely watchable performance as a man bordering on insanity, yet maintaining a degree of intelligence and strategy. There are moments when his acting seems almost blasé, as if Travolta didn’t take the role seriously, or wasn’t really trying, but either way, the result is a highly enjoyable highlight of the film. Without Travolta’s presence, this film would have been just another mediocre action film. Bob Gundon, whose role as the evil prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) immortalised him as a brilliant on-screen villain, delivers another great performance with the little screen time he has here, this time as a nagging and moaning overseer and investor of Deakins’ operation – more development and screen time might have given Gundon another memorable character.

Travolta’s curious performance is closely followed by Samantha Mathis, but this time for the wrong reasons as Mathis put on an almost amateur performance. As with any bad film, there is bad acting, and while Mathis did fail to execute a convincing performance, her acting wasn’t particularly laughably bad, just bad in the way that it was cringeworthy and embarrassing to watch. A badly written character always exaggerates a bad performance and such is the case with her park ranger character, who was horrifically written. The park ranger, who possesses an unrealistic amount of authority and carries a Magnum for some reason, didn’t seem to suit the naturally sweet and timid nature Mathis projected. Despite her character gradually developing throughout the film, she never fully convinced me and I feel she suffered a triple-threat-style bad performance: a miscast actress poorly playing a badly written character.

The soundtrack to the film is perhaps one genuine piece of inspiration to come out of the movie. The cool and edgy guitar-based theme that came from Grammy-award winner Duane Eddy is an instantly memorable and unique instrumental. Despite its one seemingly redeeming factor, Broken Arrow is a fun and entertaining film to watch for all of the wrong reasons, which perhaps wasn’t quite as Woo intended. The film suffered a lot of studio interference and censorship issues, which perhaps led to the more comedic tone for the film. Overall, the film’s over the top nature is what makes it a great watch and has everything a cheesy action film from the 90s should have.


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