Executive Decision is hardly the best film Kurt Russell has made, but it is a serviceable follow up to Tombstone, a standard “Die Hard on a plane” action film that works best if you don’t think too hard. Fortunately, most of its mistakes are technical errors that can be mostly dismissed as “artistic license.”
The story concerns an airliner hi-jacked between Athens and Washington, D.C. The motivation is presumably to free an Arab terrorist leader (Babylon 5‘s Andreas Katsulas), but intelligence analyst and student pilot Kurt Russell deduces that the terrorists have some Russian nerve gas stolen by Chechen mobsters. Rather than the let the plane land and wipe out Washington, the Americans launch a daring mid-air transfer led by stony-faced Steven Seagal, with Russell, a nerdy DARPA engineer (Oliver Platt) and a rainbow coalition of commandos (John Leguizamo, B.D. Wong and Joe Morton) along for the ride. The transfer goes horribly wrong, mercifully killing off Seagal, breaking Morton’s neck and leaving civilians Russell and Platt stranded on the airliner with the commandos.
Russell and the surviving commandos start scoping out the enemy and planning to retake the plane, aided by a plucky flight attendant (Halle Berry). Things are complicated by a pompous U.S. senator (J.T. Walsh), who takes Hart Bochner‘s role from the original Die Hard: the arrogant SOB tries to exploit the situation, negotiates with the terrorists and gets his head blown off as a reward.
One could take issue with the portrayal of the Arab terrorists as nearly mindless fanatics. A little more subtlety in their motivation would go a long way. It’s just not realistic to have the lead hijacker be the second-in-command of a major terrorist organization who actually believes the incendiary anti-American rhetoric he uses to fire up the troops. Just once, I’d like to see terrorist leaders, Arab or not, portrayed as the skillful manipulators of propaganda and practitioners of realpolitik that they probably are.
The ending of the film is telegraphed all the way back in the second scene where we see Russell taking a flying lesson, so it comes as no surprise that we end up with the plane crippled and the pilots dead. Despite the inevitability of the conclusion, the story moves briskly and never seriously insults our intelligence.
Still, there were a couple of moments that I’m sure had real military personnel and aviation engineers laughing hysterically. At the beginning of the film, we see Steven Seagal dispatch three armed guards at the Chechen mafia safe house using a knife, while the rest of his team looks on with their silenced automatic weapons. Of course, it would have been easier, safer and just as quiet to pick off the guards with the guns, but then Seagal wouldn’t have gotten to play with his knives.
Later, Oliver Platt’s character tells us that the mid-air transfer technique was originally designed for “low-orbit, supersonic” transfers to the space shuttle. But Oliver, to be in low-orbit is to be in space and sound does not travel in a vacuum, thus supersonic is a meaningless term in this context. And the last time I checked, the F117 stealth fighter is not a supersonic aircraft anyway.
Finally, toward the end of the movie, a stray bullet from a terrorist’s gun blows out a window, ripping a huge hole in the side of the aircraft, through which many passengers and at least one dead terrorist are sucked out of the plane. Despite what Hollywood has always shown us, people would not get sucked out of a hole in the side of a plane, since the differential between the internal and external pressures is not that great and the pressures would equalize fairly quickly. Secondly, one shattered window would never cause a gaping hole like the one that they show here.
Of course, such artistic license is the norm in Hollywood action movies and it doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of this film in the least. I just wish someday, someone would have enough faith in movie audiences to get such details right.