Military pilots Major Deakins (John Travolta) and Captain Hale (Christian Slater) enjoy sparring in the boxing ring to unwind, but Deakins, the older of the two, always manages to best his opponent and criticises him later in the locker room for his lack of dedication and technique. They have a friendly rivalry, and as Stealth bomber pilots they must enjoy a good working relationship, but all that is about to change as they are ordered to go on an early morning test flight over Utah to check out possible problems with the aircraft. All goes well until Deakins begins to act very strangely...
Broken Arrow was director John Woo's follow-up to the mixed reception that Hard Target received, which must have impressed someone as here he was offered an A-picture budget to play with. But still it was criticised for being laughably implausible in some quarters, as if what Woo should have shot was a drama-documentary instead of an exploding helicopters movie, which is pretty much what you got. The term "Broken Arrow", as we're told via exposition, is what you call a nuclear missile that had been lost by the military, and the reason for that loss is that Deakins has stolen the two devices that were on board the Stealth plane and left Hale stranded.
So far so action blockbuster clichéd - we have set up the antagonists, we know there will be guns involved when we see Deakins' traitorous men, and with a nuclear weapon around we can expect something to blow up good - blow up real good. But then an interesting thing happens: Park Ranger Terry Carmichael appears on the scene to confront Hale, thinking he is up to no good (she must be a very suspiciously-minded woman). She was played by Samantha Mathis, an actress who many male movie buffs of a certain age get oddly sentimental about, and as it turns out her character is the most important, mainly for what she represents.
It might seem strange for a movie so keen to set off explosions to be a pro-ecology movie, but all the signs are there, with Terry the embodiment of Mother Nature, and most upset when anything happens to damage the environment. This is why Hale must save her, and by extension the landscape, from the devious Deakins, who smokes like a chimney to underline his polluting personality, and is so crazy he's willing to destroy thousands of people just to prove his point that he's in no way a quitter and perfectly willing to stick to his wicked schemes. Therefore Hale takes a leaf out of Terry's book and utilises the four elements of fire, earth, water and air (in that order) to get the better of his adversary.
He uses these in conjunction with a load of bullets, of course, but the sentiment is welcome, and lifts Broken Arrow above the run of the mill. The environment cannot protect itself on its own, is the message, though if Terry became simply a damsel in distress to be rescued at various points throughout the plot, then this would have been a lot less interesting, so Graham Yost's script strikes the right balance between having her saved by Hale, and then contributing to beating the baddies, so that she's not a walkover. But don't let this hippy-dippy do-gooding theme distract you, as you're equally as likely to appreciate the film as a series of excellent stunts and over the top melodramatics, with vehicles going up in flames every five minutes no matter how believable that is or not (don't they have safety features on these things?). Nevertheless, it was the rare Woo movie with as much emphasis on nurturing oestrogen as macho testosterone. Music by Hans Zimmer.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.