Saturday 19 March 2022

Movie Review: Executive Decision (1996)

A terrorist hijacking thriller, Executive Decision is exceptionally well-crafted, and maintains inventive tension throughout an immersive story.

US Special Forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) fail to recover stolen nerve gas canisters during an operation in Italy. Months later, jihadists led by terrorist Nagi Hassan (David Suchet) seize control of a Boeing 747 flight out of Athens. Hassan demands the release of a captured terrorist leader and a safe landing in Washington DC. Flight attendant Jean (Halle Berry) stays calm as the hijacking unfolds.

US Army Intelligence consultant Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell) concludes Hassan's real intention is to detonate a bomb attached to the nerve gas over the United States, causing a mass casualty event. To avoid blowing the airliner out of the sky and the death of 400 innocent passengers, Travis activates a plan to insert his unit onto the 747 using a modified stealth attack aircraft and untested latching technology. Accompanied by Grant and aeronautics engineer Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), Travis' squad embarks on the dangerous mission, but nothing will go according to plan.

Superficially, Executive Decision appears to be a straightforward Die Hard-style rip-off, set in the skies. But writers Jim and John Thomas and director Stuart Baird have other ideas, and produce a wildly entertaining, remarkably taut and mostly original thriller. Of course expectations of realism have to be set aside, but full enjoyment can be found within the script's internal logic, with clever surprises awaiting at every turn.

The edge-of-your-seat thrills start early, with the wacky concept of transferring an elite group of soldiers from a stealth jet onto a 747 through a hatch below the cockpit. Baird and his special effects team make the unreal seem real, culminating in an unexpected expiration, signalling loudly that this thriller is not content to play according to pre-established rules. The action then boards the mammoth airliner, and here the film teases by delaying the rush to a direct confrontation. Instead, a deliciously elaborate and tense hide-and-seek, cat-and-mouse preparatory game unfolds. The special forces assisted by civilians Grant and Cahill stealthily organize in the plane's bowels, while the terrorists command the cabin and flight deck.

Exemplary highlights are derived from sequential crises, as every time one problem is solved, another, worse complication arises. One matter of urgency is finding and diffusing the bomb attached to nerve agent cannisters, a task made much more difficult due to a serious injury suffered by bomb disposal expert Sergeant Campbell "Cappy" Matheny (Joe Morton). Cahill has to overcome his fears and learn all about bomb de-activation literally on the fly.

In parallel with the bomb countdown, Baird leverages the claustrophobic horizontal and vertical spaces to excellent effect. Grant and Captain Carlos "Rat" Lopez (Joe Leguizamo) manoeuvre through cramped utility shafts, installing spy cameras to track the terrorists' movements, and secretly recruit flight attendant Jean as their mole within the cabin. With the clock ticking down towards the airliner entering US airspace and being shot down, more dramatic surprises await as Grant and Rat have to think fast and act faster to avert disaster.

The one main disappointment arrives at the climax, an overly familiar and unnecessary land-the-stricken-plane routine not in keeping with the preceding quality. But in producing a fiendishly canny and rowdy thrill ride, Executive Decision earns its wings.

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