OK, so Executive Decision is a slightly weird addition to the Seagal retrospective season. It’s considered by many even now to be a double-header movie (although in fact it was not). When it came out I recall some confusion as to how to classify it. I am referring to the fact that it seemed ‘the new Steven Seagal movie’ would see our man sharing hero duties with another star, Kurt Russell. The reality was that this was actually a $60 million Kurt Russell movie (Russell also being at the height of his bankability), and Seagal was there in a brief supporting role only (as Lt. Col. Austin Travis). At the time, however, my perception (and it seems that of many others) was that this was indeed the latest Seagal movie, and Kurt Russell was simply co-starring with him. Anyway, as if this wasn’t enough of an unsettling break from the norm, when the news leaked that Seagal’s character actually dies like 40-odd minutes into a pretty long two and a quarter hour movie, folks in the Seagal camp were understandably jarred. That’s just too weird isn’t it? Why did they kill Seagal? Did he know he wasn’t making the final reel when he signed on for this, or was it an example of what I like to call the ‘Lucas/Guinness Gambit’…?
Errm, OK for those readers who are wondering what the hell Ben’s talking about now, and not familiar with this particular minor movie lore legend, allow me the briefest of indulgences.
While shooting Star Wars, George Lucas approached Alec Guinness, the movie’s biggest star, and calmly informed him that he had decided to slash the role of Obi Wan Kenobi practically in half. Guinness was pissed, and nearly walked. However Lucas managed to convince him that his character’s now very early exit would make him bolder, more memorable, and more vital to the film’s ongoing story. Guinness accepted Lucas’ gambit and duly died (or became one with The Force or whatever) halfway through the movie. The rest is history. Anyway, this is the Lucas/Guinness gambit and I wondered if Seagal was delivered it (or something like it) before or during Executive Decision’s principal photography.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Seagal isn’t the focal point of the story, and never was. I recalled the original promotional artwork, press and movie posters etc at the time featured both Russell and Seagal’s faces and names, serving to further bolster this idea of a double-header movie. By 2011, however, most DVD and other promo images show a reworked version of the original sleeve/poster concept with only Russell’s mug and name in the picture.
Seagal doesn’t get a screen credit at the beginning of the movie either. His ‘second’ billing to Kurt Russell is confirmed during the closing credits. So I’m fairly sure there was no ‘Lucas Gambit’ at work, and Seagal was simply a co-star in a big movie. A co-star whose character kicks the bucket in a dramatically meaningful way (but who knows?) If it seems like I’m lingering on this aspect a little too long, bear in mind that this movie was sold to many of us on the strength of Seagal’s involvement. His profile was still sky high even after the mixed reactions to Under Siege 2, so a lot of folks were majorly bummed out by his less than 44-minute stint. The most criminal aspect of the part of Lt. Col. Austin Travis, is that anyone could’ve done it. You didn’t need someone of Seagal’s stature and capabilities. It’s a complete waste of material.
For the rest of this retrospective I am going to mostly disregard the unusual nature of Seagal’s actual involvement and treat the movie as I would any of these other retros.
Directed by Stuart Baird (better known as an editor and producer), and produced by Joel Silver, Executive Decision (along with Under Siege 2), represents a high watermark for Seagal in terms of production budget. And as far as commercial success, only the original Under Siege was a bigger box-office hit.
So briefly, here’s the skinny:
Executive Decision follows Islamic terrorist nutter Nagi Hassan (David Suchet) and his cronies, as they skyjack a 747 bound for the USA and demanding the release of their leader from captivity. It soon becomes clear, however (once said leader is free), that Hassanhas more extreme wahhabist intentions, and is planning to use the detonation of the plane (via a concealed bomb) to release a deadly nerve gas over Washington DC.
The ‘executive decision’ in question is the President’s instruction to shoot the 747 down, killing all the passengers, rather than let it reach American soil.
The film then centres around a bold plan to secretly put Seagal’s strike team on the 747 mid-flight using an F-117 stealth fighter kitted out with an experimental docking sleeve (of course). Tagging along are Russell, as Government analyst Dr David Grant, and Oliver Platt, who plays the designer/engineer of the docking sleeve, Dennis Cahill. Things go very awry with the mission and Seagal, the F-117 and most of the equipment are lost while putting the rest of the men on the plane. From this point, Russell and co work to take back control of the plane, find and disarm the bomb, and save the day all before the order is given to shoot the 747 down. In other words, it’s a pre-911 movie.
Russell puts in a classy performance (keeping his naturally exuberant swagger appropriately in check). Seagal is strangely inert and rather superfluous, but luckily the movie boasts an impressive and able supporting cast to the leads.
Platt does his usual ‘slightly losing the plot while under unusual stress’ shtick and it’s serviceable enough. You either like Mr Platt’s brand of characterisation or you don’t. He’s one of those actors who seems required to put a lot of himself into each role, this has the effect of making him play the same part time and again. I guess it’s a criticism that one can level at many actors really. Very few can really inhabit a role 100% and make themselves almost disappear within it.
Halle Berry plays the petrified but brave stewardess Jean. Now, I’m not 100% sold on Berry as an actress, but she’s solid enough in the role to make us understand that although she is very brave, she isn’t any kind of trained hero or kick ass wisecracking natural. She’s terrified and shows it, but is compelled to do what she can. It may be sacrilegious to mention such things (it’s not like she’s ‘old’ now), but I was stunned at how luminously fresh, young and staggeringly beautiful she was back then. In fact her looks almost destroy her character’s believability (even accounting for the fact that air cabin crew are often physically attractive).
John Leguizamo is Capt. Rat, a member of Seagal’s crack assault team, and becomes highest in command once Seagal is killed. Leguizamo has proved to be a pretty versatile actor and voice talent over the years, and he does a good job here of expressing the pressure and stress of suddenly being in command. I liked Leguizamo’s performance – he always seems to be on the edge of doing something rash, but pulls back from the brink every time to remain a hero.
Next is Joe Morton bless him, yes Miles Bennett Dyson himself spends most of the movie uncomfortably strapped to a gurney because his character is badly injured during the transfer from the F-117. I felt sorry for him the whole damn movie having to lie there and try to act. Luckily Morton has a very expressive face, and he does as good a job as possible working with Platt’s character to disarm the bomb. He even made me wince in sympathy a few times. Good ‘pain’ acting, Mr Morton.
The last cast member who really needs a mention is David Suchet as the bad guy. Suchet is best known in the UK as mild-mannered detective Hercule Poirot, but delivers a nicely malevolent bad guy performance. He appears as nothing more than an ordinary man. A ordinary man who just happens to be a completely insane Islamic nutter hell-bent on dealing death to the infidel Americans etc etc. Some of the exchanges between Suchet and Berry are nicely drawn and convey some good tension.
I enjoyed the movie watching it again, although the situation with Seagal’s role still narks me off. Naturally, I would rather he had a decent role worthy of him, but failing that it would’ve been better if he just wasn’t in it at all. Weirdly, Seagal wouldn’t be involved in another box office success until 2001′s Exit Wounds so maybe Executive Decision’s minor role was a portent of things to come.
As briefly mentioned, it is interesting to watch movies like this in our post 911 world. You could play a game deciding on which bits would still make it into the movie if it was made today!
It’s in no way essential viewing either in Russell’s filmography or Seagal’s (except as an oddity). But it’s an enjoyable (if a little over long) romp, and works on that level.