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Flight of fancy

Among my most cherished television memories are the outrageous movie parodies shown almost weekly on the old Carol Burnett Show. Burnett's staff had a genius for writing those bits--distilling a two-hour movie down to its essential characters, events, and motivations, then extracting from what was left 15 minutes worth of punch lines and the exaggerated but inevitable destinations toward which the films were always headed but seldom reached. Who can forget her classic "Went with the Wind" sketch, or how her "Mildred Fierce" takeoff actually seemed to tame down the hokum of Mildred Pierce?

One of the more memorable Burnett parodies was Airport '75, in which Karen Black's flight-attendant character had to learn how to land a plane with ground-bound pilot Charlton Heston walking her through the steps. That skit stood as the preeminent mockery of in-flight melodrama until Airplane! built an entire film around it.

Now Airplane! must cede its crown as a new pretender to the comedic throne has appeared. The problem is, although you might hope that most of the laughs in Executive Decision are intentional, the movie isn't a comedy. Instead, it's a witless action picture set almost totally on board a plane as a crazed Muslim hijacker plans to explode a nerve-gas bomb and depopulate the Eastern seaboard--not exactly the stuff of burlesque.

Kurt Russell plays nebbishy political intelligence wonk David Grant, a pencil-pushing brainiac apparently conceived of as the B-movie Doppelgänger to Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan. Grant has been a desk jockey for so long he doesn't quite know how to respond when the hawkish Colonel Travis (Steven Seagal) recruits him to accompany his team of commandos on a mission to board the terrorist-held passenger jet in midair and neutralize the situation before the Navy is compelled to shoot the plane out of the sky.

Executive Decision never has any heart because it is consumed by a blind devotion to the well-worn terrorist plot, one that first gained momentum after Die Hard and hasn't abated since, except in quality. The only things programs like this have going for them are the increasingly dull but distinguishing concepts intended to catch the audience by surprise.

The concept employed here is that marquee-name Seagal dies unexpectedly within the first 30 minutes. It's almost worth recommending any movie in which you get to see Seagal blown headlong out of an airplane. Seagal should consider making his early death a regular schtick in his films; it would be easier to believe his acting if you know he's supposed to be dead already.

Now that you know the gimmick, there's no reason to waste your time on this movie.

To be honest, Executive Decision is no worse, and maybe even slightly better, than inferior busts like last year's idiotic Bad Boys, but watching the same flick over and over simply because Hollywood can't think of anything new and interesting to do has grown a little tired. Many action pictures mimic the networks shuffling their schedules ("Same fun, new night and time!"), and that's mostly the fault of the maven of repetitive if often effective explodo-fests: the movie's producer, Joel Silver.

Joel Silver has left his mark on the world of cinema--in roughly the same way that my cocker spaniel has left his mark on the world of dogwood. Someone should award Silver an honorary Ph.D. in chemistry, since he has perfected a master formula about which he could teach seminars: "How to Cook Up an Action Movie."

Since the 1950s, the auteur policy of film criticism has gained currency in its belief that the director is the "author" of his films. Silver, more than any other hot-shot high-concept artiste (Lucas and Spielberg included), up-ends that idea. A Silver movie--Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, the Lethal Weapon travesties--is a producer's product. It's not really fair to call them films; even the press materials for Executive Decision refer to Silver's oeuvre in terms of dollars generated rather than awards won or critical accolades bestowed.

Silver leaves an indelible stamp on his movies: the first-act explosion, the Sinatra tune over the closing credits, and the "primary" and "secondary" bad guys (which gives two major targets for the audience to hate--one for the hero to dispatch, one for his sidekick). Here's a man who knows marketing begins in development, such as in assembling large casts generously populated with minorities and women intended to appeal to as diverse a demographic as possible. Indeed, he casts his movies with such frustrating political correctness that it's difficult to reconcile why so many of his pictures--this one included--are unapologetically racist, or at least vehemently xenophobic.

Silver's the cook of a gigantic, bloated stew, and what he does best is add spice, stir it briskly, allow it to simmer, and then splash it up on the screens of America, with the expectation that moviegoers will slurp it up as indiscriminately as they eat McDonald's burgers. So far, he's made quite a good living for himself doing just that.

What Silver hasn't made is many good movies. Some of them do stand out--Die Hard, in particular, bears up well, largely because of a great villain in Hans Gruber (stupendously played by Alan Rickman) and a neat, self-contained script--but I've become weary of his formula, so much so that I've begun to develop an immunity to the brain-numbing effects prerequisite to enjoying his movies.

You know that Executive Decision has begun to stray off the mark when the first-act centerpiece scene--the boarding of the jet via an experimental sleeve--doesn't pass the smirk test: You can't watch the scene without grimacing at its ludicrousness. The secret aircraft designed to carry the commandos and deposit them on the hijacked plane is such a laughably dumb-looking gag that when it eventually hooks up with its target, it appears to be some huge black beetle suckling off the teat of its mom. It's hard to forgive Silver and the film's first-time director, Stuart Baird, for burdening us with this bargain-basement MIR space-station wannabe, and not even realizing how crappy it looks.

Despite the size of the cast, no one escapes the gravitational force caused by the black hole of Silver's dwindling creativity. Russell's been playing good-natured heroes even since his Disney days, beginning with The Strongest Man in the World, largely because he's strong-jawed and masculine; his main strength is not his thoughtfulness, but his no-nonsense style of acting. Russell is a likable actor, but putting wire-rimmed glasses on his pretty-boy face doesn't make him an egghead; it just creates an unconvincing illusion that he thinks he's smart. Halle Berry, a beautiful and engaging actress, has less than nothing to do and meets the demand effortlessly.

The title, Executive Decision, refers to the presidential judgment call to order a strike against an American aircraft, but the big hurdle with the movie is that it is gutless. There's never a moment when you sincerely believe the lives of everyone on the plane are in danger; the government won't be allowed to shoot it down for the same reason that Crimson Tide ended in a depressingly predictable fashion.

In the '60s, cold-war thrillers like Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and The Bedford Incident scared us into social consciousness by destroying the world. In the '90s, real-life horrors like terrorism are cleanly and quickly resolved in two hours.

Executive Decision. Warner Bros. Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, Steven Seagal. Written by John Thomas and Jim Thomas. Directed by Stuart Baird. Now showing.


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