“Broken arrow,” we are told, is the government term for a lost nuclear missile. Freudians will know better. Broken Arrow, John Woo’s let’s-see-what-we-can-blow-up-next action romp, is loaded with enough phallic symbols (missiles, guns, knives, trains) to keep Quentin Tarantino happily theorizing for weeks. The bad guy, cocky military pilot John Travolta (think Han Solo crossed with Vincent Vega), steals not one but two thermonuclear missiles; the good guy, heroic but untested Christian Slater (think nobody in particular — Slater’s gun does his acting here), must outwit Han Vega and recover the missiles. The movie is infatuated with potency games and one-upmanship. Who’s got the missile? John Wayne Bobbitt could tell you what “broken arrow” really means in this macho-showdown context.
Broken Arrow, like the recent From Dusk Till Dawn, is so unapologetically what it is — lowbrow crapola — that you either roll with it or roll your eyes at it. If only the script, indifferently sketched in by Graham Yost (Speed), didn’t make eye-rolling so easy. This writer seems taken with hurtling vehicles and young heroes challenging older psychos (as Keanu Reeves did with Dennis Hopper) — he must have seenStrangers on a Train as a kid and never gotten over it. Yost’s scripts are skeletons onto which gifted directors (Speed‘s Jan de Bont, and, in this case, the legendary John Woo) can graft meaty action sequences. But those hoping for witty dialogue, due to the presence of Tarantino alumni Travolta and Slater, are in for a dry evening. Yost can’t get enough of lines like “We gotta get outta here!” and “We don’t have time to discuss it!” (Quentin would have given them plenty of time.)
While Travolta calmly executes anyone who threatens his plan (“I don’t see what the big deal is,” he muses after making his first close-range kill), Slater tracks him across the desert with the help of brave park ranger Samantha Mathis. Though stuck in a Sandra Bullock clone role, Mathis transcends the thousand annoying “What’s going on?” lines that mar her first half hour. Slater apparently doesn’t have time to have a personality in this movie, but Mathis has enough for both of them. She’s not impressed by the boys with big guns.
Two other guided missiles give Broken Arrow semi-nuclear capability. Behind the camera: John Woo, the Hong Kong master of crescendo cinema, whose movies (The Killer, Hard Boiled, and this one) elevate gunplay and explosions to concussive ballet. On the screen: John Travolta, whose recent tough-guy performances (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and certainly this one) make smug aggression seem like a state of grace. They both have elegant moves, and they turn this mosh pit of a script into an intricate, rather beautiful dance of momentum and force. Broken Arrow is good trash; to be great trash, it needs a screenwriter who knows it’s trash and proceeds from there.