Movie Review – Executive Decision
Director : Stuart Baird
Year Of Release : 1996
Principal Cast : Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, David Suchet, Oliver Platt, Joe Morton, BD Wong, Len Cariou, Whip Hubley, Andreas Katsulas, Mary Ellen Trainor, Marla Maples Trump, JT Walsh, Nicholas Pryor, William James Jones, Richard Riehle, Charles Hallahan, Ray Baker.
Approx Running Time : 133 Minutes
Synopsis: When terrorists seize control of an airliner, an intelligence analyst accompanies a commando unit for a midair boarding operation.
Ahh, the 90’s. When every action film in the decade felt like a clone of Die Hard – this film gave us the metonym subtitle of “Die Hard On A Plane” – and is as pure and unashamedly a 90’s action flick as you’re likely to find. Made in the years surrounding Michael Bay’s The Rock, Simon West’s Con Air, John Woo’s Face/Off and a slew of other high octane militaristic action features (not to mention Steven Seagal’s successful action franchise, Under Siege), Executive Decision might lack the joie de vivre of many of that decades more successful genre films, but what it does have is a terrific cast (some of whom last the entire film, some of whom, er.. do not…) and a highly implausible, yet entirely entertaining plot that, in spite of the post-millennial terrorism fatigue we’re all suffering, remains suspenseful and masterfully told by director Stuart Baird.
A plane is hijacked above the Atlantic, headed for Washington DC. Aboard, terrorist Nagi Hassan (David Suchet), who is carrying a payload of highly dangerous nerve toxin which he plans to detonate across the Eastern Seaboard of the USA and kill millions of people. Our only hope – a special team of US Special Forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travers (Steven Seagal) comprising of technical expert Carlos Lopez (Moulin Rouge’s John Leguizamo), specialist Louie Yung (Jurassic Park’s BD Wong), operations specialist Baker (Whip Hubley) and bomb disposal expert “Cappy” Matheny (Terminator 2’s Joe Morton). They plan to infiltrate the plane via a mid-air transfer, overseen by engineer Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), and locate Hassan based on intel provided by Dr David Grant (Kurt Russell), a member of the US intelligence community. However, when the transfer is botched, and Cahill and Grant are marooned aboard the jetliner with the special forces, they must team up with stewardess Jean (Halle Berry) to uncover the extent of the terrorists plans, prevent utter catastrophe, and naturally, live to see another day.
There’s something about Executive Decision that just works. In spite of how exceedingly idiotic the characters feel, how ridiculous the plot and motivation for the plot is, and aside from the fairly truculent nature of the genre’s archetypal genetics, Executive Decision remains a hugely enjoyable action romp that never outstays its welcome. Kurt Russell, looking splendidly youthful and debonair, plays
John McClane David Grant with aplomb, yet another American screen hero caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and while he may lack the quips of Bruce Willis’ character in the Die Hard franchise, Russell acquits himself as the reluctant protagonist with all the charisma of a modern Hollywood A-lister.
David Suchet does his best villain work here – although I can’t help but think of the terrific work of Robert Forster, playing a similar role in Chuck Norris’ The Delta Force, by way of comparison – and steals most of the scenes in which he appears, while Halle Berry is diverting as the subterfuge air hostess working to aide the inserted team from the flight deck. Spotting the faces of BD Wong, Joe Morton (who had a huge streak of dynamite action success on his resume following not only T2, but Speed and this film as well), and Lethal Weapon co-star Mary Ellen Trainor (her role is short-lived, it must be said, and purely a cameo) is always a pleasure, while Oliver Platt’s sweaty, nerdy-but-not-nerdy geek role remains hilarious throughout. Minor support roles from the late JT Walsh, as a US Senator, and Richard Riehle, as a US Air Marshall aboard the hijacked plane, are fun if too short-lived. It would be remiss of me not to also mention the brief appearance of one of Donald Trump’s (now former) wives, Marla Maples, as an air hostess, but you’ll have to look quickly.
The film’s plot is retrospectively generic; various narrative gimmicks are telegraphed well in advance (although, it should be said, not the death of an above-the-line star about 25 minutes into the movie, which came as a shock to audiences at the time and is still a brave thing to do in a template-driven action piece) and the sleek 90’s visual aesthetic, from the opening credit font to the jazzy, Die-Hard-esque closing song over the end credits is absolutely gilt-edged mid-90’s corn. Executive Decision is merely a few steps away from being an outright parody of action movies, from the various “near miss” moments, ticking clock bomb-dismantling sequences, to the plane reaching some arbitrary “point of no return” whereby the air force will shoot it down; it’s all hand-clapping fun and played just seriously enough to engender legitimate tension, but not brutal or graphic enough to really bury the catcalls of generic storytelling around the edges.
The film marks the directorial debut of long-time editor Stuart Baird, a frequent Richard Donner collaborator and a man who has a filmography most would be envious of – among the list of his editing credits alone, he’s tackled The Omen, Superman, Ladyhawke, the first two Lethal Weapon movies, Die Hard 2, The Last Boy Scout and Demolition Man, and this is all before he stepped up to direct this film! Baird understands action completely (he’s also a co-editor on this film, alongside Frank Urioste) and cross-cuts the film’s multiple plot threads with a keen eye for tension and knowing how to keep the audience wanting more. The gun battles that bookend the film are perfunctory and resolute, the visual effects involving the various planes and airborne activities in the story remain strong in spite of their age, and there’s a lot of thought that Jerry Goldsmith’s brassy, action-centric score only adds to the pomposity of it all.
Executive Decision is hard-core action cheese cinema that seems to have gone missing post the year 2000. The gleeful nature of random terrorists managing to secret weapons aboard an aircraft, the fact that they could smuggle what must surely be a good half-tonne of explosives and deadly nerve agent aboard a commercial airliner without tripping an alarm, and the casual masculine overkill makes this a stupid concept that really is as daffy as they get. But it works, it just does. Russell’s leading man role and the exemplary supporting roster, tied with Baird’s expert direction and deft ability to carve tension from even the most ludicrous situations, makes this film click into gear and perform. A perfect popcorn thriller without a nauseating shaky-cam moment in sight, Executive Decision is decisive, exciting, and above all, delivers.
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