"It's like Die Hard, but on a plane!"
In the realm of Die Hard-esque movies, this one is a bit of a long shot. While it does involve a main hero, out of his element up against a group of terrorists in confined spaces, the similarities kind of end there. The hero is sent to help take down the terrorists with a group of highly trained soldiers and is never even meant to go against them head on. The action doesn't involve taking the bad guys out one by one, but rather just staying unnoticed until one swift strike takes them all out, which he has little to do with. In fact, our hero doesn't kill anyone at all and most of the action revolves around getting onto and eventually landing the plane. It focuses more on tension by way of covert ops and the threat of a bomb strapped to a bunch of poison headed for Washington D.C. than fist fights and shoot 'em ups. But with a couple of big action stars and a really strong supporting cast (not to mention my only vague recollections of it prior to writing this piece), it seemed appropriate to add to the pantheon of pseudo-John McClanes and their adventures. I guess you could say I made an executive decision on it (eh? See what I did there?).
The film opens with Steven Seagal stabbing multiple people in the neck while on a covert mission with his team, made up of the fat clown from Spawn, The Brother from Another Planet, and the bad guy from The Substitute 2: School's Out (or John Leguizamo, Joe Morton, and B.D. Wong, if you prefer). They are raiding a safe house of the Chechen mafia in Italy, looking for a bunch of a stolen nerve agent known as DZ-5. Wait, what's that you say? You didn't even know this was a Steven Seagal movie? Is it because his face only appears on the international version of the poster (dude's big in Germany) and his name doesn't even appear in the opening credits? Well, that's because Seagal has what amounts to a largely extended cameo that lasts through the first act. That's right, they kill Seagal 40 minutes into the movie in a mildly heroic way. It's actually a really effective scene that raises the stakes of the film in a big way. I remember renting this when it first came out on video and being absolutely shocked when Seagal bites it. It really blew my mind...this would have been a good joke had his death been filmed as originally intended, but Seagal had to be a big baby about getting his head 'sploded. I guess I'll say it blew me away instead...still not as good. Damn you Seagal, was a million dollars a day not enough for you to do a little FX work?!?
This movie actually belongs to Kurt Russell as Dr. David Grant. We meet Russell as he is taking a flying lesson, seeing that he knows what he's doing, but still isn't confident in his skills yet (I wonder if that will come into play later?). Before flying solo for the first time, he gets called away to help figure out the best course of action in a plane hijacking as he is a military intelligence consultant. The first 20 minutes of the film deals with the initial safe house siege, the kidnapping of a terrorist named Jaffa into US custody, and the plane hijacking that gets this story off the ground (nevermind, I'm still killing it today). The Pentagon decides to send our characters to the plane via an experimental stealth aircraft that will connect to the bottom of the airliner and allow them to enter the hijacked plane. With the help of engineer Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt) they make it onboard, Seagal suffers his surprising (but ultimately disappointing) death, and then the movie really gets going. It makes good use of its 2 hour and 10 minute running time, that's for sure.
Now on the plane with no way of contacting the military and one of their men suffering from a broken vertebrae (who just so happens to be the bomb expert), it's a race against time to take back the plane before it reaches US airspace. If they don't, the military will be forced to shoot down the plane and kill everyone in it, because it's got a bomb on board with all of the missing DZ-5! The soldiers get a little extra help in the form of a pilot that discovers their presence, an undercover Air Marshall, and Halle Berry as a flight attendant...whose name I do not remember. It's definitely a thankless role, but she got her first million dollar payday, so cut her a break (why wasn't that enough for YOU, Seagal?). The soldiers and Russell decide to storm the plane and take out the terrorists while Oliver "Lake Placid" Platt and a morphine injected Joe "Judgment Day" Morton try to defuse the bomb. But wait! Apparently there is a passenger on the plane with remote control access to the bomb, so they have to find that guy and take him out so they can retake the plane and save the entire east coast! Man, this is tense!
After a lot of sneaky recon work, sweaty attempts at bomb defusing, and Kurt Russell becoming an action hero by rocking a cool hoodie atop his fancy schmancy tuxedo, the good guys appear to have won the day. They corner the lead terrorist Hassan (a really fierce and intimidating David Suchet) after taking out all of his buddies and he has nowhere to go. But wait! This bad guy ain't going out like that and shoots the pilots before being taken out by that guy from The Pest. Now it's up to Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, and a pilot operating manual to land the plane in the same small airport Russell was flying in at the beginning of the movie! Can he put his piloting skills to the test and save everyone by landing a huge plane on a tiny runway? Yes...of course he can. It's a movie dumb-dumb. So the good guys win, the soldiers gain a little respect for ol' Jack Burton, and Russell gets to take Halle Berry out for a cup of coffee. Man, why do my Tuesdays never go this well?
I didn't realize how convoluted this movie was until I started writing out all the numerous plot points, but that doesn't really work against it. Executive Decision is a big goofy action movie and it seems to embrace that completely. Beyond the one-liners and the incessant location text (you will know where every different scene takes place), the movie is a lot of fun and the cast makes it really easy to watch. Even you, Seagal. While it may be short on the Die Hard elements that fuel this column, it takes the basic idea of those movies and tries to do something a little different with it. That's more than I can say for most of the films that I'll end up covering here. It was written by the guys that gave us the two original Predator movies oddly enough, but that explains the camaraderie between the soldiers and Halle Berry's secret crab face. This was also director Stuart Baird's first film, and his best, followed only by U.S. Marshals and Star Trek: Nemesis, but the guy brought some serious action chops with him from the editing bay of films like Superman, Lethal Weapon, and even Die Hard 2! Though no longer directing, he is still working strong in the editing department and even chopped up a couple of the recent Bond films.
These elements came together to make a really solid action film that I'm happy to add to this series. To be honest though, I had even more fun researching the background info for this piece. That's how I found out Steven Seagal knocked the wind out of John Leguizamo during rehearsals to assert his dominance. It led me to a few interviews with Steven Seagal, each one more egotistical and douchey than the last! But most importantly, it got me excited about this column again and I'm going to shake things up a little. Why should the boys get to have all the fun? Join me next time for 1996's Skyscraper as Anna Nicole Smith does her best Jane McClane while trying to save a building from a group of terrorists. You know, like that one movie.