Rewatching ‘Executive Decision’: Subverting Expectations in a Top-Notch Thriller
Executive Decision is a 1996 thriller about terrorists who seize control of an airliner, and an intelligence analyst that accompanies a commando unit for a midair boarding operation.
There is no shortage of over-the-top action thrillers, with the 90s practically a repository of direct to video and cable titles stuffed with personality-less heroes pulling of world-saving adventures. Some managed to elevate themselves a bit with some bigger named stars and clever stories, arguably reaching its peak in 1997 with Harrison Ford as the President of the United States kicking butt all over Wolfgang Peterson‘s action movie Air Force One.
The year before though, we got Executive Decision, another ‘plane’ movie with a somewhat similar premise (anyone remember Wesley Snipes amazing Passenger 57?), though instead of a splinter group of Russian radicals with a plan to free their leader from captivity, it is followers of Middle Eastern terrorist El Sayed Jaffa (played by Andreas Katsulas) … with a plan to free him from captivity. It does follow a few standards and plays into these expectations, but does have some divergents that make it a better than most probably give it credit for. Let’s rewatch.
It starts with a secret military incursion led by Lt. Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal), conducting a raid on a Chechen mafia safe house in an attempt to recover stolen DZ-5 nerve gas. Based on what Travis believes is bad intel, the gas is not at the location, and he loses one of his men in the battle. We learn shortly after that this intel was provided by Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell), a Naval graduate who works as a consultant for U.S. Army’s intelligence.
Not long after, Oceanic Airlines Flight 343, a Boeing 747, takes flight out of Greece, headed to Washington, DC, but is hijacked mid-flight by Jaffa’s men, led by Nagi Hassan (David Suchet), a calm and deliberate man in control of radicals who are, well, not so much. Back in the US capital, they are told of the takeover and their mission, which puts Travis back in action as the man to lead a secret assault on the plane while in flight because Grant, in on the meeting, believes that the stolen nerve gas in onboard and the terrorist’s true intent is to use the plane as a weapon and detonate the whole thing over Washington. Knowing that Grant is a prominent and reliable source, but wanting a little revenge on him, he requests the consultant join them for part of the mission. Turns out, that’s a good idea.
So far so obvious. Yet now comes the twist, and the bit that separates this from most other thrillers in the genre. Getting the soldiers onboard the plane involves an experimental military stealth plane, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, where they sneak under the passenger plane, and via a pressurized sleeve, allow for a mid-air transfer, all without the larger jet knowing it’s happening. Problem is, and spoilers here of course, Travis doesn’t make it, blown out of the plane when turbulence knocks the seal loose. So, just to hit this point again, in the first act, once the movie has set up a simple premise and its order of heroes, it flat-out throws it to the wind. Literally. It’s a great twist, taking the hardboiled nature of the start and shifting it into Jack Ryan territory with a mix of Die Hard. And that last bit is no accident.
Stuart Baird, who has only three films to his directorial name, is one of the best editors in the business (nominated for 2 Academy Awards), with the first two Die Hard films topping a long list of impressive titles. Naturally, he edited Executive Decision as well, and the film is better for it. Russell is a great ‘substitute’ for Bruce Willis‘ John McClane, his own everyman quality well-established in many other films, including The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. I like how they throw in a 007 vibe to it as well, with him in a tuxedo for the duration. Carlos “Rat” Lopez (John Leguizamo) even takes a jab at this.
After Travis is jettisoned from the story, the film actually becomes a lot more quieter, another shift from expectation, where the remainder of his crew onboard, along with Grant and the designer of the F-117 device, Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt) must overtake the plane. This isn’t a run and gun opportunity of course, and they spend a majority of the time in the undercarriage and above the fuselage using mini-cameras and whispering to each other over radios as they come up with a plan. Meanwhile, they find the massive bomb, but their specialist, Campbell “Cappy” Matheny (the great Joe Morton) has suffered a broken neck in the initial assault and is unable to move, making defusing it a very complicated process.
They aren’t alone though. One of the flight attendants, Jean (Halle Berry), learns that Grant and others are aboard and works to offer them intel all the while as Hassan grows increasingly out of control. Sure, she’s underused, but as the only female in the main cast, does well, thankfully avoiding being set up as a love interest or eye candy. This is all about the story, and sticks to it.
What I really like about the film is these moments, after Seagal exits the movie. Until this point, it’s been pretty generic, and would have been more so if Seagal has been made the star. His cameo of sorts, which stays true to nearly all of his roles to that point – where he’s a sort of bland punch and shooter star – is cleverly positioned to get us into that line of thinking. To have that stripped away, left us kind of floundering for a bit, wondering what the heck is going on. It even gives the movie a moment to do the same, where the boys, all tucked inside the bowels of the plane feel equally unsure. It’s kinda brilliant and allows us to reset and await whatever comes our way. What does come makes for an above board action thriller.
The movie was generally met with praise from critics, who found it a fun and goofy thriller loaded with inventive and creative situations. It balances the action of the takeover with the bomb defusing very well, and while both Walsh and Barry are kind of wasted, there’s no denying the otherwise terrific use of the large ensemble cast. This is a smart movie, written by Jim and John Thomas, packed with many great moments that are borne of intelligent dialogue and authenticity, even as it flies above ‘reality’ by a few thousand feet.
I’ve always like this movie better than Air Force One, the way it handles the limited action and setup. Suchet is an underrated actor and is great fun as the bad guy and while many might gawk at the finale, it always felt well-earned to me and done with a terrific sort of ‘we’re going all in’ attitude. It’s nerve-wracking and fits inline perfectly with Grant’s character. Plus it’s just darned good storytelling.
Executive Decision is a long movie, at over 2 hours, made back in the day when that was the norm, and while it certainly borrows or maybe homages some of the classics (straight-up ripping off the last shot of Die Hard 2), it’s nonetheless a great Friday night popcorn favorite. Do yourself a favor and give it watch.