Broken Arrow opens up with a really cool title sequence, where John Travolta and Christian Slater spar in a boxing ring. What do we love about this sequence? First of all, we get to watch Christian Slater take a beating. Second, there's a Bruce Lee reference. And third, it's done with enormous style, just as we would expect from action director John Woo.
Unfortunately, the title sequence was the last thing in Broken Arrow we completely enjoyed. That's not to say the rest of the movie is bad, exactly, but the rest of the movie never reaches the same level of testosterone-fueled coolness.
Slater and Travolta play U.S. Air Force pilots Hale and Deakins, who are assigned to fly the new batwinged (and fictional) B-3 bomber. During a special test run with the B-3 carrying live nuclear weapons, Deakins suddenly tries to kill Hale. Both end up ejecting, though Deakins manages to dump the nukes first.
Naturally, it turns out that Deakins is trying to steal the nukes. This makes perfect sense, because stealing nukes is what villains in movies do in the last half of the 1990s. Deakins has a whole team of soldiers on the ground to help him move the nukes in accordance to his plans, and naturally Hale is the only person who has a chance to stop them. This makes perfect sense, because being trapped in an unlikely situation and being the only ones who can do anything about it is what heroes in the movies do in the last half of the 1990s.
On the ground, Hale runs into perky Park Ranger Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis), who becomes his partner for the duration of the movie. She spends most of her time jumping onto/hiding in the various vehicles the bad guys use and handing Hale her gun so he can shoot at the bad guys. At one point she even offers herself up as a decoy to a hostile helicopter.
If Mathis' character seems superfluous, that's because her character is superfluous. This is a movie by and about testosterone, and Mathis is included for the babe factor and to give Slater someone to whom he can explain things. Travolta, on the other hand, gets to explain things to his cohorts, before he starts killing them.
The Mexican stand-off: gun vs knife?
The movie then gives us the standard chase-the-bad-guy but-don't-get-killed action, with a hint of heist-film intricacy and the occasional cold-blooded murder or nuclear explosion thrown in for spice. Although Woo wasn't given a free hand in this, his second Hollywood film, it's a darn sight better than Hard Target, the Jean-Claude Van Damme shoot-em-up, in terms of acting and script. Unfortunately, it has less style than the earlier film. Woo gets some of his film trademarks into the film (most notably Deakins' reflection in the B3 cockpit, and an amusing reference to The Killer), and entertains us all in the process, but Broken Arrow doesn't feel all that different from any other Hollywood action movie. Importantly, though, it was a financial sucess and a major victory for Woo and Travolta.
When the film was still in casting, Travolta was given his choice of the two lead roles. He chose Deakins, and boy are we glad he did. Travolta is obviously having a great time with the part, and he doesn't have to uphold any of the tenets of Hollywood heroism or appear noble in any way. Woo must have loved Travolta too, because Woo gives him not one but two dramatic entrances. Slater, on the other hand, manages to finally get away from his usual Jack-Nicholson-imitating bad boy act and starts doing heroic things. He's not completely convincing, but all he really has to do is get in Travolta's way so Travolta can sneer that sneer.
Broken Arrow is a warm-up for both Woo and Travolta, as they proved in Face/Off, a ridiculously successful film that sent a message to Hollywood: Hong Kong has a thing or two to teach us about making a great action film. Broken Arrow, with its by the number script and reletive lack of style, made it look like Woo had been chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Luckily, Broken Arrow was just a stepping stone to a better tomorrow.