Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at John Woo’s somewhat forgotten sophomore Hollywood effort, Broken Arrow, which turns 25…
Remember Broken Arrow? Memory a bit hazy? Well John Woo’s second Hollywood film, a box office hit at the time, turns 25. In 1996 we were seeing a decided shift away from the kind of heroics usually reserved for action titans like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone (with the likes of Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise rising to the fore). Stallone made Daylight the same year, which bombed, whilst Arnold made Eraser, which was pretty successful all told, but still represented something of a financial disappointment for a star whose work was being benchmarked against his previous two James Cameron films for financial returns. In fact if you think of Eraser, it’s another example of an action film that’s been a little (perhaps unfairly) forgotten in time, much like True Lies from a couple of years prior.
Broken Arrow would feature John Travolta as the villain, with Christian Slater out to stop him. It plays on a Die Hard formula that sees an underdog hero in Slater, having to put a stop to a world ending event against Nuke thieving terrorists (lead by Travolta). The former cohorts turned enemies, battle it out in a film helmed by one of the all time great action directors in John Woo. Woo had already made his Hollywood bow when Jean-Claude Van Damme brought him over to direct Hard Target. That film was successful, though has seen its stock rise a lot in the intervening years, not least because it felt closer to Woo unfiltered, whilst Broken Arrow is Woo-lite. Regardless, this film riding off the coattails of Travolta’s re-emergence as an A-list star (whilst Christian Slater still had some credit in the bank at this point), is an interesting case. Why don’t people talk about Broken Arrow much anymore?
For one, it’s not brilliant. It’s good. It’s entertaining and whilst Woo is a little hamstrung, he provides enough flair to inject the set pieces with style. Slater is arguably a touch bland as our everyman hero, the co-pilot whose boss has gone rogue. Lets face it, villains stealing the limelight from the hero wasn’t uncommon, but Travolta does it at a canter. He was still very much revelling in his post-Pulp Fiction renaissance and enjoying the opportunity to have fun as a villain. Slater meanwhile, wasn’t helped with a cookie cutter character lacking in much grit, and often tied down with his female co-star Samantha Mathis who felt equally mundane. It felt like an example of putting a female character in to keep a demographic happy (or try to exploit it) without giving the character too much to work with, but then, this can often be the remit. Action genre boxes need ticking off first before the chance to venture into untraveled character paths comes along. It tends to be why villains become theatrical, as they’re granted a certain inherent freedom for a theatricality that offsets their often simple motivations. That said, Slater still has enough charisma to remain easy to root for.
The very same year however, Michael Bay with Nic Cage in the lead (and the late great Sean Connery as point man) were unleashing The Rock. If Woo has a distinct style that can sometimes lack subtlety (certainly in his Hollywood work) then Michael Bay is a doubled down, ADHD, bat shit crazy American counterpoint. Bayhem. At its best it’s gloriously entertaining, even if at its worst Bayhem is migraine inducing. The Rock was superb. Even more star power, more thrills and more excitement around the main through-line of stolen military weaponry. Additionally, the quirk and scenery chewing actually comes from the unlikely hero in Nic Cage, grounded by the suave stoic badassery of Sean Connery as his wingman. Meanwhile the villain, Ed Harris, had a certain complexity that made him interesting, boosted by his team of recognisable villains (including Bokeem Woodbine, David Morse and Tony Todd). Broken Arrow was a hit. It’s a decent action film, but it got quickly overshadowed that year by The Rock and their respective long term legacies couldn’t be wider apart.
There’s another reason Broken Arrow has been somewhat buried in the dusty corners of history and it’s in the next big film Woo made, Face/Off. The film reteamed Woo with Travolta, threw in a high concept plot and then brought in the new action man of the moment, fresh from Alcatraz, Nic Cage. The billing was clear, Travolta vs Cage, a face off of not just physical action but a chance for them to out chew each other of scenery. The film is utterly ridiculous with the plot itself barely holding together even the remotest logic, but the ride itself making us forget it entirely. With different star and directorial ingredients, it could have been shambolic. With Woo/Cage/Travolta, it’s perfection. Here’s the kicker too… Travolta gets to switch from hero to villain, and Cage vice versa, allowing each man the opportunity to show off their show-stopping villainy, and tragi-hero sides. Face/Off is of course something of a cult favourite now, and Woo was far more unrestrained, even if he becomes something of a caricature of his own style (but in the histrionic world of the film and its untethered theatricality, it works).
As for Broken Arrow though, it struggles to maintain a significant legacy, but it’s perhaps a little harsh on a film that ticks everything you’d expect of the genre, and remains good fun. It may not be The Rock and something of a warm up to Face/Off, but action lovers looking for some good old fashioned underdog world saving heroics have a lot to enjoy from this glossy film. There are some great set pieces, a fantastic Travolta and a great score from Hans Zimmer, who was something of an action journeyman prior to becoming one of the most respected around after Gladiator. Zimmer’s work, with a heavy guitar leaning, provides a lot of personality in the film and conspires nicely with Woo’s stylistic flourishes.
What are your thoughts on Broken Arrow? How does it hold up after 25 years? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/