Who else but John Travolta could win over an audience while playing a twisted Air Force major and Stealth bomber pilot who cold-cocks his trusting pilot pal (Christian Slater), steals two nuclear warheads and holds the world for ransom? His demand: Pay up or blow up. “You’re out of your mind!” shouts one of his cronies. “Yeah,” says Travolta. “Ain’t it cool?”
It sure is. “Broken Arrow” — the title is militaryspeak for a lost nuclear device — delivers the hippest action fun around. In his second Hollywood film, following the disappointing “Hard Target” with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Hong Kong director John Woo is in dazzling form. Admirers of his non-Hollywood work shouldn’t get too excited. “Broken Arrow” doesn’t allow for the spiritual epiphanies that mark “A Better Tomorrow, The Killer” and “Hard Boiled.” But the compensations are considerable. The script by Graham Yost (Speed) is wittily efficient, the weapons are state of the art, and the special effects — supervised by John Richardson (Aliens, Cliffhanger) — will have you ducking in your seat, especially during an underground nuclear explosion that turns the flat Arizona desert into rolling waves of sand high enough to surf.
Woo has been especially fortunate in his cast. Slater, beefed up to play pilot Riley Hale, makes a stalwart hero without losing his impish humor. His scenes with Samantha Mathis, as National Park Ranger Terry Carmichael, are sweet and sexy. Like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed, they grab the occasional hot look while being chased and shot at.
Make no mistake, though — this is Travolta’s show. His Vic Deakins cracks after being passed over for promotion once too often. But even playing a bonkers badass, Travolta is a pleasure to watch. Teeth flashing, blues eyes twinkling and cigarette elegantly poised, he exudes flyboy charm. Woo, who made a legend of actor Chow Yun-Fat in Hong Kong, knows movie-star glamour when he sees it, and he just lets Travolta rip. Good thinking. Travolta’s “Dr. Strangelove” exit will blow you away. Ditto the movie.