a critiQal film review Executive Decision (1996)

  • DVD

Plot: When terrorists hijack a 747 carrying 400 passengers, an American intelligence analyst and expert in terrorism (Russell) believes that their plan is to launch a nerve gas attack on Washington DC. The President's Crisis Management Team must choose between ignoring the agent's nerve gas theory and allowing the plane clearance to land in the Capitol, or destroying the plane and sacrificing its 400 passengers. A Special Forces leader (Seagal), however, has a different solution -to secretly board the 747 using an experimental aircraft.

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It’s Saturday – time for another flashback action movie review! This time around, it’s Executive Decision the thriller-on-a-plane starring Kurt Russell.

When I discovered this was available on NetFlix® Instant Queue, I immediately added it to my must-see list. After all, amidst all of these movies I’d seen before, Executive Decision stood out – mostly since I hadn’t actually ever gotten around to seeing the entire thing. Sure, I’d seen bits and pieces while flipping through movie channels over the years. But now I would have the chance to sit down and watch the entire film.

Would it be worth it? Or was there a reason I’d never gotten around to seeing Executive Decision before now?

Kurt Russell is just one of the recognizable faces in this cast. He’s the main star, and, as expected, gives a solid performance while in the driver’s seat of this film. Whether he’s racing through a sinking ship in Poseidon (2006), fighting off magical mystics in Chinatown in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) or taking on all-comers as action hero Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981), Russell has built himself quite a reputation as a sort of everyman action hero. Not overly buffed out like Schwarzenegger or Stallone, or very experienced in the martial arts like Jean-Claude Van Damme (or his co-star, Steven Seagal), Kurt runs pell-mell into danger with little but his attitude and determination to fuel him – and viewers love him for it.

It’s no different in Executive Decision, although don’t expect the high shenanigans of Escape from New York (1981) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) here. Playing a government intelligent analyst way in over his head during a terrorist situation on board a plane, Russell downplays the crazy. Instead, he takes on the role of solid team player to the squad of commandos he finds himself with. It’s a calmer side to Russell, and while the crazy is usually more fun, his intensity in Executive Decision is interesting as well.

He’s backed up by quite a few familiar faces, including Steven Seagal, John Leguizamo, Halle Berry and more. While Seagal’s role is surprisingly brief, but he contributes his bit. Halle Berry isn’t bad either as a frightened but determined stewardess. Even John Leguizamo, who usually tends to get on one’s nerves with his nasally voice, tones down both his voice and his own unique brand of crazy and plays soldier boy well. Other familiar faces, seemingly out of place at first, also turn out to mesh well, including B. D. Wong (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (TV)), Joe Morton (Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)) and Oliver Platt (2012 (2009)).

While the plane thriller has been done before (Passenger 57 (1992), etc.), Executive Decision has learned from their mistakes. Namely, Keep The Plane In The Air. Building tension when the characters are on-board a plane in flight is easy. Yet, too many airplane thrillers tend to have their characters get off the plane – apparently running out of ideas of what to do while in flight. As soon as the hero debarks, a lot of the tension drains away. The film then has to figure out how to rebuild what they’ve lost. With Executive Decision, they keep the plane – and thus, the tension – in the stratosphere.

But how do you get this interesting team of characters on-board a passenger airplane without losing the tension caused by a landing? Ah, Executive Decision has thought of that too. Their harrowing in-flight boarding just helps bump the tension up another notch or two.

Of course, after the events of 9/11, many may still be uncomfortable watching a terrorist hijacking of a plane, especially when those terrorists are of Arab descent. Despite the bad connotations – or maybe because of them – the movie actually works even better as a fantasy sequence that viewers wish had been the outcome on that day.

Surprisingly, Executive Decision turns out to be rather good. With a cast of familiar faces filling out new roles with alacrity and more tact than expected, Executive Decision manages to show viewers both what it’s learned from previous plane thrillers. On top of that, it manages to toss a few surprises of it’s own. And it’s all done while playing out an action fantasy many Americans will find easy to get behind.

Grab some popcorn, and get ready to root for Kurt Russell, Oliver Platt, Halle Berry and all the rest on board Executive Decision.

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