Retro Film Review: Executive Decision (1996)

in #film8 months ago (edited)


On September 11th 2001 something more than two towers collapsed. It would take years for the real impact of those events is still to be fully grasped, but even today is quite obvious that some of 1980s and 1990s Hollywood films are going to be viewed differently and for some is debatable whether they are going to be viewed at all. Among those titles is Executive Decision, 1996 action thriller directed by Stuart Baird.

The plot begins in Trieste when the group of Chechen smugglers gets wiped out by the elite unit of American counter-terrorist commandoes, led by Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (played by Steven Seagal). The real object of the mission - locating nerve gas stolen from ex-USSR - is not achieved. Military intelligence expert Dr. David Grant (played by Kurt Russell) is much more successful; due to his excellent work, US has captured Jaffa (played by Andreas Katsulas), leader of Middle Eastern terrorists. Jaffa's liberation is the aim of his remaining followers, led by fanatical Nagy (played by David Suchet) and they hijack Boeing 747 on route to Washington. Grant, however, realises that this was just a cover for terrorists' real plan - they have smuggled the nerve gas on the plan and want to use the jetliner to crash in Washington D.C., spread the toxic gas and thus kill millions of people. For US government the obvious alternative is to shoot down the plane and thus sacrifice hundreds of passengers. The other alternative is to use experimental F117X plane, equipped with the device that could quietly hook with other planes in flight and thus allow counter-terrorist commandos to board the jetliner and take down hijackers. Grant and plane's designer Dennis Cahill (played by Oliver Platt) accompany Travis and his team during this desperate stunt. Things don't go as planned - during the boarding, device fails and Travis dies with half of his team; the remainder, including Grant and Cahill is stuck on the jetliner. Grant, who is complete amateur when it comes to fighting terrorists in the field, must improvise new plan in order to defeat them.

Executive Decision could have been just another among hundreds of Die Hard clones. The set up in this film is more-or- less the same - seemingly omnipotent villains take control of an isolate space until their plans are foiled by single individual. In most of Die Hard films single individual is some kind of policemen, ex-commandos or people whose past indicate that they could take care of villains. Here this character is played by Steven Seagal and the audience is pre-conditioned to believe that he could indeed take down terrorists. But that would effectively ended film in couple of minutes. So, producer Joel Silver and screenwriter Jim Thomas wisely decide to get rid of Seagal's character who passes the torch to unlikely hero in the form of Kurt Russell's mild-mannered bureaucrat. Russell plays this role very well, relying more on his intellectual image than muscles in the same manner as his character who uses more brain and less physical power to achieve his task. Because of that Executive Decision not only lasts two hours longer, but those two hours are for the most part more exciting and interesting than we are accustomed for this kind of films. Stuart Baird is quite comfortable in his first directorial effort and the supporting cast is very good, including J.T. Walsh in rather thankless role of US senator. Unfortunately, otherwise reliable David Suchet is quite pale and unimpressive in the role of the villain, while Halle Berry sleepwalks in the role of heroic stewardess.

The biggest flaw of the film, however, is something beyond film makers' responsibility. They, like the people whose job was to know better, didn't imagine real life situation so similar and in the same time different from the events portrayed in this film. Some plot elements in Executive Decision have frightening resemblance to last year's tragedy, but there is a difference. In real life, unlike Hollywood films, heroes don't always win and villains sometimes carry out their dastardly plans. The audience was reminded of this on September 11th 2001 and because of that watching Executive Decision might leave viewers embittered or saddened rather than entertained. On the other hand, prophetic quality of this film might even be comforting. In the plot, the task of fighting evil and saving lives is left to the common man instead of superhero; and on September 11th 2001 this task was carried out by common people and we might argue that Executive Decision was one of those rare Hollywood films that got it right.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on December 4th 2002)


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