Directed by John Woo

Starring John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis

"Broken Arrow"

Opens: Feb. 9, 1996 | Rated: R

Welcome to Advanced Action Movie-Making 101 with Professor John Woo. In this class we will learn what it takes to make a heart-racing, seat-gripping action movie that is also a feat of superb film-making.

Roll call: John McTiernan? Renny Harlin? James Cameron? Ridley Scott?

Now pay attention class, because "Broken Arrow" blows the doors off all your recent projects.

And how.

John Woo -- the Hong Kong director of "The Killer" and "Hard Boiled," two of the purest and most joyously over-the-top movies of the action genre -- has made a completely American action flick better than Americans can. Yet it doesn't feel like an action movie, but more like a brilliantly planned, wonderfully shot and tightly scripted suspense thriller that just happens to be full of shootouts, fist fights and explosions.

"Broken Arrow" stars John Travolta as a stealth bomber pilot who crashes his plane to steal the two nuclear missiles on board and ransom a major city. Christian Slater is his co-pilot and the guy who has to hunt Travolta down.

This is a movie in which there are at least a dozen fight scenes, some with guns, some with fists; some in slow motion (Woo can somehow do this without it seeming trite) and some on the tops of moving HumVees and trains.

In this movie, characters get the snot beaten out of them and don't even show a bruise (another Woo trademark).

This movie is packed with stunts that rival the exploding bridge in "True Lies."

But the real wonder of "Broken Arrow" is that these things are not what makes the movie great.

Woo is a director in love with his art, and from the opening shot -- with the camera above a boxing ring as Travolta and Slater spar, cutting to split-second close-ups as each punch connects -- "Broken Arrow" is visual symphony.

Every action, be it the HumVee getting tossed around by the shock wave of an underground nuclear explosion or Travolta tilting his head just so as he takes a drag from his cigarette, draws the audience in. And, by the way, nobody can smoke a cigarette like John Travolta.

Woo's camera follows his character's faces closely, examining the details of their eyes and their mouths, exploring their motivation and reading their minds.

Travolta is easily up to the task of connecting with his character so fully that long, meaningful close-ups are not a problem.

Surprisingly, so are Slater and Samantha Mathis ("How To Make An American Quilt"), who plays a park ranger Slater hooks up with in the Utah desert where the stealth goes down. Even more surprisingly, ex-football player Howie Long, in a small part as one of the bad guys, is up to it too.

Woo conducts his cast through 105 minutes of inspired and breathless stunts without leaving his audience with the loophole-finding afterthoughts of the usual action movie.

This is a movie in which a nuclear bomb explodes -- and it's not even the climax.

There were a few minor fallacies -- Travolta's antagonist apparently changed the disarming code on the bombs without actually having ever touched them, and I really don't think audiences still need it explained to them like children that nukes don't go off unless they're armed -- but other action movies ask the audience to forgive many, many more logic gaps than "Broken Arrow."

And just to make "Broken Arrow" even more different (read: better), the hero and the girl never kiss. John Woo knows his picture doesn't need it.

©1996 All Rights Reserved.

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