Executive Decision

Executive Decision is as bland as its title. What’s more, it finally gives us what Hollywood has been threatening for years, the movie nobody was waiting for: Airport ’96. It’s got everything — the mad bomber; the plucky stewardess; the Who’s Who passenger list (though this movie uses character actors, not faded stars as in the Airport series); the hero who knows how to do everything except land a plane, which of course he’s called upon to do.

The plot is one of those bewildering pieces of cheese about terrorists and anti-terrorists, all of whom have huge guns and identical constipated expressions. A famous terrorist has been arrested, and his cohorts hijack an airliner and demand that America set the terrorists free. Or else what? Well, there’s a nerve-gas bomb on the plane, ready to detonate when it lands in Washington.

Kurt Russell, as some sort of fancy intelligence agent, is the only one smart enough to figure out this plan. He and a pack of commandos (led by Steven Seagal) decide to take another plane up and break into the airliner. I’d just as soon not go into how they do it, because it’s complicated and probably the most entertaining section of the movie. After that, though, Executive Decision loses altitude fast.

The two or three remaining members of the Steven Seagal Fan Club should know that his presence in the movie is grossly exaggerated in the ads. Great character actors like J. T. Walsh sit around, obviously bored and wondering when they’ll get to do anything. Joe Morton (as an injured commando) spends most of the film on his back. Halle Berry (as the plucky stewardess) looks anxious. Oliver Platt, who tries to disarm the bomb, sweats a lot and chews a straw. Marla Maples Trump shows up, too, as another stewardess. That’s how you really know this is Airport ’96.

As he proved in StarGate, another throwback to ’70s schlock, Kurt Russell has a way of shouldering a big retro load like this without too much strain. He’s not bad here; as an actor, he always projects solid common sense and intellect, and he keeps Executive Decision halfway watchable. But you’d hardly know from his bespectacled, buttoned-down performance what a witty actor he can be.

Apart from the movie’s specific flaws, there is something distasteful about Hollywood’s insistence on foreign terrorists, especially after the extreme reality slap in Oklahoma City. Executive Decision has an odd and bitter element: The title refers to the government’s decision to destroy the airliner — with 400 innocents aboard — before it can touch down and release the nerve gas. The movie is full of toxic gas itself. It demonizes both foreigners and the U.S. government in a way that reminded me of the militant paranoia of Rambo — the definitive Reagan-era fantasy. Executive Decision would fit better in any era but this one. It’s for people who still want to believe the enemy isn’t us.

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