Die Hard has yielded, and still yields, numerous “on a/in a… “ clones, including a minor “terrorists on a plane” ‘90s sub-genre. Passenger 57, Air Force One (which is part of another subgenre, “president in peril/action president”) and this, by some distance the best of the trio.
While it can’t summon up any of the sophistication or wit of the first Die Hard, neither is the script quite as knuckleheaded in construction as the credit to Jim and John Thomas (the first two Predators) might suggest. The characterisation is every bit as crude as you might expect and the terrorists are all-purpose Muslim extremists of the most one-dimensional kind; no wonder the production received full co-operation from the Pentagon.
There is little attempt to qualify the group’s motives or their plan for mass slaughter (of the entire population of the Eastern seaboard, no less!); the suggestion is that they wouldn’t have all gone along with it if they had known what their deranged lieutenant (Poirot actor David Suchet – always get a British actor to play a terrorist, no matter what race they are playing!) had in mind. This a standard Hollywood sop intended to forestall accusations of racism or insensitivity. If I were sufficiently principled, I would no doubt reject Executive Decision out-of-hand for its unwholesome stereotypes (if this film had been made post 9/11, at very least the religious fervour of its main antagonist would have been nixed). But the confidence of the filmmaking manages to win me over.
Long-time editor and first-time director Stuart Baird has put the action together impressively. There’s little in the way of visual flair, but he instinctively knows where to place the camera and when to cut in order to maximise the tension in any given scene; he makes a virtue of the cramped setting, rather than allowing it become burdensome and repetitive. This is a relatively humourless affair (Oliver Platt aside) but Baird sustains the lengthy running time with ease, relishing the script’s unlikely twists and unfortunate mishaps as they pile upon each other. Even the most transparently formulaic elements (you just know that Kurt’s flying lessons will come in handy at the climax) are likeably predictable.
In its own way, rather unassuming way, this is the Psycho of action movies, dispatching the assumed arse-kicking star (Steven Seagal, an actor with all the personality of a mouldy pastry) at the end of the first act and leaving it to bespectacled intelligence consultant Kurt Russell to take centre stage. If nothing else, the surprise moment of Seagal’s departure is one for which Executive Decision deserves veneration and a place in movie history books. Of course, Russell is no one’s idea of a wuss so it’s little surprise that he rises to the leadership challenge. But he’s a very good actor too, which means you’re willing to suspend disbelief (he’d return to this type the following year in another well-made thriller, Breakdown).
Also along for the ride; Halle Berry as a plucky flight stewardess, John Leguizamo proving it’s more than possible to be annoying in every movie you make, an under-used J. T. Walsh, and Joe Morton acting most of the cast off the screen while barely moving. The plane that comes under attack belongs to Oceanic Airlines, whose unfortunate track record would get a lot worse in the TV series Lost.
Baird has only occasionally dipped a toe in the director’s pool since; both were sequels and neither met with much applause, either critical or commercial (U.S. Marshalls and Star Trek: Nemesis). As an editor, he’s as prolific as ever, most recently working on Skyfall. For reasons that remain unclear, Executive Decision was sold by Paramount to Warner Bros in exchange for the (at that point) troubled Forrest Gump screenplay (another film that might be read as possessing deeply conservative politics); at the time it must have looked as if Warner Bros was getting the better deal.