***/**** Image A Sound B+
starring Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, Steven Seagal
screenplay by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
directed by Stuart Baird
by Jefferson Robbins SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Stuart Baird's Executive Decision begins and ends as a bad, bad movie. It starts off wobbling distractedly from one fraught international locale to another, complete with bleeping, wordy chyrons telling us where we are and with whom. It ends in a pile of airliner-in-peril clichés and some flirty banter so terrible it puckers the ears, acting as though Airplane! never happened. In between, the picture gets better, tighter, and tenser than a sub-Tom Clancy military political thriller starring Steven Seagal has any right to be. It accomplishes this, in part, by throwing Seagal off the plane.
Needless to say, it's a radical subversion of audience expectations: Braced for a two-hour machismo-off between Seagal and co-star Kurt Russell, we watch as half of that pairing is ejected sans parachute from a disintegrating stealth aircraft five miles up. Executive Decision became somewhat infamous as the movie that killed the 'til-then-unkillable Seagal a third of the way in, after only letting him waste three dudes in hand-to-hand combat. (And those he more or less sneaks up on with a knife.) In fact, until Seagal dies, it's exactly the kind of shitty movie Seagal would star in. The gambit works because, based on the tropes of his career up to that point, there's no reason for the viewer not to expect Seagal's Lt. Col. Austin Travis to bulldoze his way through the posse of Islamic terrorists who've hijacked Oceanic Flight 343, neutralize the massive nerve-gas bomb stuffed in its hold and bound for Washington, D.C., and land the thing. Well, maybe not land it, exactly, but at least get off it alongside comely, resourceful, last-nameless flight attendant Jean (Halle Berry). Travis's foil in this venture is supposed to be Russell's Dr. David Grant, a think-tank sophisticate whose life's work studying Mideast terrorism makes him the only man in America who can out-strategize the hijackers' leader, Nagi Hassan (David Suchet). Grant also happens to be the guy whose perhaps-faulty intel got one of Travis's commandos killed in a failed mission to retrieve the errant nerve gas one year before. We know the mission will go wrong somehow and put Grant accidentally on the airliner, but we don't necessarily expect him to wind up there without Travis.
Neither does Travis's purportedly crackerjack strikeforce, whose leadership devolves to the tightly-wound Rat (John Leguizamo) and whose morale and inventiveness quickly implode in the face of long odds. Once the team is trapped in the belly of the 747--outnumbered, leaderless, two civilians in tow (Russell and Oliver Platt, so more like two and a half), and nursing their badly injured bomb specialist (Joe Morton) under the noses of a dozen heavily-armed jihadists--our investment becomes complete. It's obvious that Clancy is the touchstone for the script by brothers Jim and John Thomas (Predator), especially given Grant's Jack Ryan-esque grace under pressure. He knows almost everything, and what he doesn't understand, he can adapt to in ways his strikeforce compatriots can't. In James Bond fashion, he arrives on the abducted plane in a tuxedo. This is Clancy's egghead action hero in all but name, missing only Jack Ryan's bad back for a fatal flaw. And whaddaya know, he's studying to be a pilot, too!
The death of Col. Travis denies us a certain closure to his relationship with Grant, but as the team improvises its way through the mission and spies on the terrorists in the cabin, we get the pleasure of watching multiple plots in well-oiled motion. The scenario--plane as guided missile, WMDs aimed at the U.S. capital, resourceful jihadists who can't be bargained with--just goes to show that sometimes terrible fiction prefigures reality perfectly. Grant and Jean communicate through hidden video monitors, secret phone calls, and desperate, covert glances, even as Jean tries to conceal the presence of an armed air marshal on board. (In a touch that sexualizes the film in a subtle, Hays Code way, Grant's first all-important glimpse of Hassan is from between Jean's legs.) J.T. Walsh, one of a score of That Guy actors in the extended cast (among them Ken Jenkins, Mary Ellen Trainor, Len Cariou, B.D. Wong, Marianne Luellerleile, and Charles Hallahan), pulls an Ellis as a craven U.S. senator who appoints himself to negotiate with Hassan. Suchet is a still and reptilian presence as the terrorist leader, a Bin Laden type without the latter's cowardly drive for self-preservation. He's a radical Islamist in the Fox News tradition, determined to strike a blow for the glory of Allah and a future Caliphate. It's a portrayal that was loaded in 1996 and is even more so today, and it feels like a feeble moment of imposed political correctness when one nameless terrorist in his retinue argues that Islam frowns on the idea of drenching the Eastern Seaboard with neurotoxin.* Meanwhile, poor Joe Morton once again gets to babysit a massive bomb after suffering a life-threatening injury.
There's a lot wrong with Executive Decision. Baird, a long-time editor who cut Lethal Weapon and its first sequel, somehow manages to make an action movie that's two-and-a-quarter hours long and decorates its early minutes with a fully-realized, expensive-looking kidnapping scene that's condensed to a slo-mo/quick-cut flashback, probably to save time. Some of the drama is unearned: Grant's foot is hilariously caught in a food-service cabinet at one critical moment, and Travis doesn't really have to die--he just sort of stands there and does it. The situation rooms where high-ranking military leaders decide how to handle Oceanic 343 seem too small, and it doesn't help that they're painted the off-coral of a Florida motel room. (By contrast, the airplane interior is unimaginably vast and high-ceilinged.) Marla Maples Trump, of all people, receives a cast credit for playing a weeping hairdo in a stewardess uniform. But we can forgive much of that for the film's tick-tock precision in its middle stretch, the place where the story actually happens.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner's Blu-ray edition of Executive Decision seems to have been sourced from a print generationally close to the negative, and the picture survives the transition to HiDef with only a few of its strings showing: In this 2.40:1, 1080p visualization, the midair greenscreen effects show their age a bit. Still, this and the plain use of models--remember models?--generate in me more fond nostalgia than annoyance. There's no image noise or distortion to speak of and no texture is lost in the darker scenes. Sound-wise, Executive Decision relies on the rear channels mostly as a delivery system for Jerry Goldsmith's phoned-in horns and drums, but the lossless audio (5.1 DTS-HD MA) does us a lot of favours in the front and low ends, keeping dialogue crisp and bass deep. I'd appreciate something like a documentary or commentary track offering more thought on where Executive Decision stands as a pre-9/11 mile marker, or maybe somebody could tap Outlaw Vern to comment on its strange place in the Seagal canon. I feel like there's a division point worth exploring here--a study of what action movies were, and what they had to become. Alas, this disc arrives supplement-free with the exception of Executive Decision's theatrical trailer, in standard definition. Originally published: August 30, 2011.
*I never saw Executive Decision in its theatrical incarnation, but it appears that this BD takes its cues from a 1999 European DVD release, which excised some brief material involving the Quran as a focal point for the terrorists' program and cut a scene of Hassan in prayer. A packaging disclaimer hints as much. To my mind, this makes sense as a narrative decision as well as, perhaps, a political one: Hollywood (and Peter King and, frankly, too much of America) views radical Islam itself as the problem, overlooking the questions of territory and colonialism by which Middle Eastern Muslims become radicalized. The 9/11 hijackers did not act in a political vacuum; the hijackers of Executive Decision do, and "Islam" as the script pretends to understand it is their sole motivation. Subtract the prayer element and the holy book, and this goes down easier in a dramatic sense. Hassan leans on the Quran for justification, but the Quran in this version is not there to justify him. return