Executive Decision is being billed on television ads as an action thriller with Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal. It’s a pitch that is hardly fair, considering the star of the Under Siege series appears in only a quarter of the film.
Granted, there are some who might see such an early exit by Seagal as a good sign, and before Executive Decision, I would have agreed. But for once, Seagal on screen makes sense, at least for the brief time he is there.
As Lt. Cmdr. Austin Travis, Seagal is almost a parody of himself, and that’s why the role works. His gruff, hard-guy soldier plays nicely off of the real star of the film – Kurt Russell as bookish military adviser David Grant.
The peppy if preposterous plot has Seagal’s special team of commandos, along with Grant, board an in-flight 747 airliner that has been taken over by an extremist terrorist group. What you get is a fairly standard, big-time Hollywood action flick that is just as grandiose, outrageous and insulting to the Islamic religion as one might expect. Though Russel isn’t very successful in the Jack Ryan role (both Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford have done this not only better, but before), he and Seagal do develop an amusing odd-couple rapport, making it a surprising disappointment when Seagal drops out of the action. That action, however, is staged with impressive craft and care, even without Seagal.
The script, written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, lays out enough twists and turns to keep the momentum going. And with his clever use of parallel cutting, director Stuart Baird squeezes twice the tension from each moment of suspense.
The requisite clock countdowns and red-or-black-wire decisions are all here, but by alternately cutting between those scenes and others of equal intensity, Baird manipulates the pacing and tempo to utmost effect. Add a large and diverse cast, including Hale Berry, John Leguizamo, Joe Morton and Oliver Platt, and Executive Decision seems to have the makings of a success.
But the film’s ignorant portrayal of the terrorists is still hard to ignore. After its brief stint targeting Irish bad guys (Blown Away, Patriot Games), Hollywood has returned to Islam and the Middle East’s terrorists.
Executive Decision is perhaps the most blatant film of all to make the direct connection between the two: In it, the terrorists’ leader not only quotes from the Koran, but kills at random while screaming “Allah!” Of course, such stereotypes of the Islamic religion aren’t much different than those Hollywood holds for Christianity, where anyone who memorizes the Bible also kills at will (Just Cause, Copy Cat, Seven)
In this post Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggart era, the movies have looked toward religion to find its villains, a move that in those few cases makes sense. But when broad stereotypes of an entire religion still persist in an otherwise entertaining action film, it’s an issue that must be addressed.
Like with any Hollywood blow-em-up, one can only sift through the rubble and pick out those pieces that are salvageable and worthwhile. Executive Decision may contain more valuable debris than the usual action flick, but there is still a troubling unpleasantness to the mess it leaves behind.