Film Reviews

Empty quiver

Many actors--hell, maybe even all actors--can easily outdistance Christian Slater for on-screen magnetism. He's gotten away with that bargain-basement Nicholson ripoff since Heathers, but he's never been able to equal Nicholson's evil energy--the devilish charm that makes Nicholson captivating in almost any part.

When the story doesn't demand of him much more than his physical presence, Slater can be adequate, but I defy you to list three of his films by name within 10 seconds...

Just as I thought. At bottom, Slater simply doesn't have the hero's demeanor necessary to make him a credible leading man. In itself that lack of grandeur is OK: Some people just don't have it, and we like them fine. (James Garner has made a good living playing likable losers whose most heroic quality is their ability to live to the end of the picture and somehow manage to come out on top.) But time and again, Slater shows how desperately he wants to be the big bwana, and it's kind of pitiful watching him try to fake it. Whenever he succeeds at some Herculean task, you absent-mindedly attribute it to luck, or poor scripting, but you know it has nothing to do with real guts.

Imagine my glee, then, during the opening scene of John Woo's Broken Arrow, when John Travolta beats the holy crap out of Slater. As unrelentingly brutal as the scene is, I couldn't help but laugh throughout. Finally, I thought, Slater has realized his place in movies: as a walking, talking whipping post.

Then the reality of the situation in Graham Yost's lame screenplay set in. Of course Slater had to start off being slapped like some pimply rag doll. That way, when he eventually learns how to be a man (maybe during, say, the film's highly predictable climax?), we see that his character has moved emotionally from point A (credible victim) to point B (incredible champion). Pick up your Golden Cliche trophy on the way out, Graham.

It would probably be easy to cut Broken Arrow a little slack, attributing its numerous lapses of logic to "conventions of the genre," but that would be giving Woo and Yost more credit than they give the audience. We aren't five minutes into the film when the whole plot is laid before us as plainly as the flat, uneventful desert landscape where most of the film is set. Like the setting, the end seems a long way off, well beyond the horizon, but what lies ahead is precisely nothing, just more of the same junk, mostly scraps from Under Siege 2--the ones even Steven Seagal was savvy enough to avoid. It's the same limp story--a radical bomber pilot, played by Travolta, steals two nuclear warheads, and Slater must stop him; it contains the same faltering performances (at least when Travolta's bad he's watchably awful--unlike Slater); and the same ludicrous plot twists. In fact, there's more leaking gasoline waiting to explode in this movie than on the Exxon Valdez.

In movies like this, it's never been apparent to me why villains who have the money to finance these elaborate fools' errands expect they'll recoup their investment by ransoming the weapons back to the United States. I'd think the interest you could earn on the money spent to mount an undertaking as costly as the hijacking of a Stealth bomber and escape with two atomic weapons would keep you in champagne and silk boxers till kingdom come, but hey, I don't write for the movies, just about 'em.

After his ump-teenth comeback--first with Pulp Fiction, then with Get Shorty--Travolta risks having Hollywood turn on him again if they see the shameless teeth-gnashing of which he's capable, but at least he has a sense of humor about it all. "Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?" he scolds a cohort. He gets a few such riffs off before the movie relegates him to acting like he's perpetually constipated.

Admittedly, what we've come to expect from Woo, the doyen of Hong Kong action flicks, isn't plot or character but simply action, and lots of it. Arguably, Broken Arrow delivers on some very elementary level. The fun in watching the underground detonation of a nuclear warhead isn't the blast itself, but the seismic reverberations that wrinkle the ground like a crepe tablecloth. It's a spectacular example of Woo's specialty--the poetry of motion--and there are a few skillful explosions peppered throughout, though you may feel that the stunts involving helicopters, even 15 years after the Twilight Zone Movie tragedy, still seem singularly out of taste.

Still, the good moments are undermined by the spasmodic pacing and top-heavy plotting. When you hear the tickle of banjo music in the background after one particularly bland chase scene, it becomes apparent that the film hasn't a truly creative frame rattling about in its entire two hours. At heart, it's nothing more than a big-budget episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Broken Arrow. Twentieth Century-Fox. John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis. Written by Graham Yost. Directed by John Woo. Now playing.

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Arnold Wayne Jones