To call John Woo a loose cannon is to understate the case. The former star director of the bloody, flamboyant, no-holds-barred Hong Kong cinema is a blazing wall of machine-gun fire and two halves of a severed freight train smashing together. Woo is helicopters bursting into balls of flame, fighter jets crashing into mountainsides and--because the ante must constantly be upped in zillion-dollar action movies--he's now a full-scale atomic explosion that fuses an entire abandoned copper mine into an oversized penny.
If you like loud, and relentless mass destruction is your thing, Woo is your man and Broken Arrow is your movie (this week, anyway). Armed with a humongous Hollywood budget and high-octane stars like John Travolta and Christian Slater, he makes Speed seem as inert as an Ingmar Bergman film. Even Woo's own American debut film, the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target, may as well be an Ivory-Merchant production by comparison.
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Do you really want to hear the plot? Okay. A renegade Air Force pilot steals a couple of nuclear missiles and holds them for ransom; the guy who was in the seat next to him tries to get them back. Upon this simplest of high concepts, Woo hangs all the mayhem he can think up, which means detonating all the major modes of transportation in triplicate or quadruplicate and allowing the hero to introduce himself to the heroine only after most of the world has been leveled and they're the only ones left.
There's not much point in talking about "acting" amid action this frantic, except to note that the recently resuscitated Travolta, who plays Broken Arrow's cocky, crazed villain, Vic Deakins, probably isn't expecting any Oscar nominations this time around. But someone might offer him an athletic scholarship. He does enough ledge-swinging, kickboxing, boat-wrecking, plane-crashing and face-smashing to satisfy six men half his age. He pinches lighted cigarettes out between his thumb and forefinger, and not even bullets faze him. In Woo's over-the-top final sequence, which involves a nuke in a boxcar ticking its merry way toward holocaust, Travolta gets shot in the shoulder. Come the next camera angle, though, the wound has vanished: As the kids in film school would have you believe, Woo really is divine.
Our hero is one Riley Hale (Christian Slater), whose duty it is to get the living hell beat out of him for two hours--in the boxing ring, in the stealth bomber he's flying with Deakins and in the wastes of the Utah desert. That wouldn't be so bad if he didn't also have to endure lines of Graham Yost dialogue such as: "You don't have the will to win."
What Hale does have, eventually, is a pretty park ranger who owns a big gun and knows karate (Samantha Mathis). Together they manage to save the planet when the entire population of the Pentagon and about 50,000 emergency shock troops cannot. Thanks to John Woo, who's been doing this sort of thing on a smaller scale for twenty years, Broken Arrow rates pretty high among the new crop of gizmo-and-noise movies. The boys in the audience won't need fresh shots of testosterone for weeks.