As Vic Deakins, the sleek renegade military pilot who’s the chief villain in Broken Arrow, John Travolta does his damnedest to act like a swaggeringly disreputable psycho. He delivers his lines through clenched teeth, and he struts around the desert with insanely purposeful bravado, like some charter member of the Rodeo Drive militia. In Broken Arrow, Travolta is a mellow actor impersonating an angry one. You can tell he’s working hard to be a badass, and if you’re a Travolta fan (is there anyone out there who isn’t?), you keep rooting for him to pull it off. But Vic Deakins isn’t quite a character: He’s a villain out of a Steven Seagal picture — a one-note megalomaniac, the kind of stylized fiend who announces his bad intentions with every grinning rejoinder. Travolta’s acting is pure shtick; he’s so unrelentingly cocky he barely slows down to breathe. (This isn’t a performance; it’s a career move.) Broken Arrow comes on like a crowd-pleaser, but the movie is even shakier than its star. It’s a big, loud, defiantly schlocky action bash that keeps blowing things up because it doesn’t know what else to do.
At the beginning, Vic takes a test ride in a B-3 stealth bomber armed with twin nuclear warheads. After punching out his young copilot, Riley Hale (Christian Slater), he crashes the plane, absconds with the weapons, and threatens to detonate them unless the Pentagon meets his extravagant financial demands.
Broken Arrow is the second Hollywood feature directed by John Woo, the Hong Kong action virtuoso who, at his best, stages intricately choreographed gun battles that snap, crackle, and pop like a mile-long string of firecrackers. Woo’s first American outing, the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Hard Target (1993), didn’t offer the director at his purest, yet its best sequences had his trademark escalating fury — violence as a crazed slapstick apocalypse. Unfortunately, his bravura is scarcely in evidence in Broken Arrow. Woo keeps the explosions coming right on schedule, and we know that there’s a payoff in store: the inevitable radioactive blast. (It happens underground, which is pretty nifty.) Despite its volatile premise, though, the movie is, in essence, a drably low-tech chase thriller brimming over with visual clichés (a chopper chasing after our hero, thugs blasting away with machine guns). The musical score, all synth-pop dread and cornball neo-Morricone guitar, keeps telling us that something exciting is about to happen, but what we actually see is John Travolta and Christian Slater stranded in different sections of the parched, shrubby desert. Even the nukes seem weirdly innocuous. (They’re thin, featureless mini-rockets that look like props in a junior-high play.) For all the style and tension on display, Broken Arrow might as well have been directed by Richard Donner’s cameraman and called Not So Lethal Weapon.
It’s all to easy to forget that Christian Slater is the hero. There he is in his Top Gun hairdo, smirking at Samantha Mathis, who’s cast as a spunky park ranger. But now that he’s stopped trying to channel Jack Nicholson’s charisma, Slater is like your kid brother: cute and rambunctious and mild as hell. Do you really want to see your little brother save the world? Ingratiating as he is, Slater has no force; when he has to do something like dash between two moving vehicles, he looks miserable, like a soldier going through a drill. With its lightweight hero and its random spray of ”high-powered” action, Broken Arrow is like an underpopulated version of The A-Team. It’s not just John Woo who gets swallowed up by the impersonal mechanics of big-budget mayhem. It’s the audience, which pays for a sleek, dark thriller and gets recycled pulp instead.