E is for… Executive Decision
Way back about a decade and a half ago or so, I remember my mom and I renting Executive Decision and enjoying it. So when I decided to skip The Expendables in my viewing list, I wondered what would replace it. And of course I remembered back to Kurt Russell and an airplane and thought Executive Decision would make a good contribution to my list.
In some ways, it does. It’s got some action, and some terrorists. It also veers a little in that it seems equally as suspenseful as action-filled, which wasn’t quite the intention of this site. Blame a memory fogged by fifteen years.
That’s fine, because Russell’s character, David Grant, does some heroing, and there’s a lot of good things in the movie. …and plenty of bad, one being John Leguizamo talking out of the side of his mouth as if he’s whispering—badly—to someone off camera, and two being the movie dragging on for another fifteen or so minutes after it should have wrapped up.
Anyway, Executive Decision (directed by Stuart Baird) opens on a failed toxin (DZ-5) bust led by Steven Seagal—I mean Lt. Colonel Austin Travis —and his crew. Cut to Beckings Research Institute Consultant to Army Intelligence David Grant (how does that fit on a business card?) taking flying lessons. See where this is going yet? To make a needlessly complicated story short, Middle Eastern terrorists take over a plane headed for Washington, DC. Grant is called in because he knows the most about the terrorist in charge, Nagi Hassan (David Suchet). Hassan is trying to ensure the release of El Sayed Jaffa (Andreas Katsulas) by threatening to blow up the plane. The catch is that Grant strongly suspects that Hassan has on board with him the DZ-5 and assumes he has enough to take out at least the entire population of DC. So, Hassan has to be taken down before the plane lands. Cue Travis and his men and their engineer friend Cahill (Oliver Platt), who happens to have an experimental stealth jet, the Remora, that can attach to a plane in motion and men can travel from it to the other plane.
In the process of boarding the 747 as Operation: Hail Mary, there are some difficulties that result in the bomb expert, Cappy (Joe Morton) getting severely injured, Cahill boarding instead of Travis, Travis getting sucked out into the sky, and the Remora blowing up. The team also has no way of communicating with the outside, so they can’t let the Pentagon know they made it aboard. Knowing they have only a few hours to take down Hassan, the current leader of Travis’s team, Rat (Leguizamo and his sideways mouth), organizes cameras around the plane so they can see what’s going on. He seems to take Grant under his wing as well to make him less useless. They also get one of the flight attendants, Jean (Halle Berry), on their side so they have some hands up top as they’re underneath the passenger area in the avionics room. They find the bomb and Cappy and Cahill work to disarm it, Cahill extremely reluctantly and Cappy strapped to a makeshift backboard with duct tape. After Cahill makes a mistake and the bomb doesn’t blow up in their faces, Cappy realizes the bomb has fake systems in it, and also that it must be controlled by someone outside, someone no one but Hassan knows is there. Grant and Rat and Jean try to figure out who it is, before this “sleeper” runs another check on the bomb and realizes it’s been tampered with.
Meanwhile, because the Pentagon hasn’t heard from Operation: Hail Mary, it’s decided that the 747 should be blown up (because Hassan won’t reroute it), and the government will have to cut its losses rather than risk the entire eastern seaboard if the DZ-5 really is on the plane. Fighter planes are dispatched and the pilots of the 747 are told to change course, which of course they can’t do, and one of the fighter pilots has his hand on the trigger of his missile, ready to fire. Just in the nick of time, Baker (Whip Hubley) is able to manipulate control of the 747’s tail lights and communicate in Morse code to the fighter pilots. The team is given ten minutes to complete its task, after which the 747 will be too close to Dulles to risk Hassan getting his way and blowing the plane over a populated area.
Hassan eventually makes clear once Jaffa is released that he’s still intent on his mission, which is now a suicide mission for Allah, and will continue to have the plane flown to DC. This of course means Grant and the commandos absolutely have to disarm the bomb and take down Hassan. Jean figures out who the sleeper is and Grant and Rat go to stop him. Only it’s not him! Grant looks around and realizes who it must be, and shoots him, but the sleeper still has time to activate the bomb. But wait, Cahill’s habit of chewing on plastic straws now becomes crucial to the plot, because he can wedge the straw between the contacts of the bomb, stopping them from connecting. In the commotion, terrorists including Hassan get shot, a hole in the plane opens up and sucks out a terrorist and a bunch of loose stuff, Rat gets shot, and the pilots get shot. So—shockingly—Grant has to use his limited knowledge of flying and apply it to an enormous passenger plane and rely on Jean’s assistance as she reads the flight manual so he can land the plane. He overshoots Dulles but conveniently recognizes the airport he uses for his lessons. So all is well, Grant saves the day, and rides off into the night with Jean.
I honestly feel that the movie would only be improved by trimming a lot of the fat and having a much closer focus on the “Die Hard on a Plane” feel the filmmakers were going for, by having the hero already on the plane, and working more alone (as it was, Grant is barely in the forefront as “hero”; it’s really a group effort), and cutting the stuff about Hassan wanting Jaffa freed. All of this would cut a lot of the extra time that slowed down the movie, and there could still be the “Can anyone fly this plane?” sequence at the end but maybe it wouldn’t be so gratuitous.
All of that having been said, let’s check out the criteria.
A is for… Accents
Ensuring that Executive Decision will never be shown casually on television, if it ever was, the terrorists taking over the plane and threatening an American city are all Middle Eastern. They of course therefore have an accent.
B is for… Bad Guys
Naji Hassan—initially referred to as Al th’ar, or “Revenge”—is Al Sayed Jaffa’s Deputy Director. It is emphasized several times in the film that he does not negotiate for anything. Ever. Grant informs everyone that Hassan is an extremist to be taken at his word.
In general the terrorists don’t seem to work together well; Hassan kills one of his own men, and didn’t share with his men his intention of making the mission a suicide mission.
Perhaps because there are a number of terrorists under Hassan, and ten other people on which the film has to focus, there isn’t as much time spent on Hassan as there could be. He’s rather one dimensional and not terribly compelling or interesting, as far as villains go.
C is for… Chases
Because the majority of the film takes place on a 747 and the bad guys don’t know the good guys are there, there aren’t really any chases. The fighter planes coming up alongside the 747 and threatening to shoot it down sort of count, but since the 747 can’t exactly get away, it doesn’t really.
D is for… Damsels
Flight attendant Jean is another undeveloped character. She’s depicted as being close friends with the flight attendant who is soon murdered by a terrorist. She’s also shown to be fairly intelligent because she realizes her friend must be hurt or dead because she hasn’t come back. Also, she knows there’s an armed air marshal on board (Richard Riehle) so she hides the passenger manifest, and even hides it in a rack of magazines rather than in the trash, which is of course the first place Hassan looks when he realizes it is missing.
It’s nice for once that the “damsel” in the movie isn’t also a lone hostage/target, as has been the case in the other films looked at so far. This pushes Jean’s later actions straight into “sidekick” territory.
E is for… Explosives
The opening raid uses an explosive device to open a door.
A suicide bomber in London has a rigged vest that destroys the entire restaurant.
One of Hassan’s men uses an explosive to blow out the cockpit door.
Part of the tension in the film revolves around the DZ-5 bomb on the plane (first its initial existence, and then trying to disarm it and beat the clock, then the immediate threat of it going off).
F is for… Flashbacks
There’s a weird and unnecessary flashback that depicts Jaffa being abducted by Americans as Hassan watches. It’s weird because A) the relationship between Jaffa and Hassan isn’t yet established, so the viewer has no reference point for the looks the men are shooting each other, and B) why not make this a real scene and not a flashback? If the movie is supposed to take place all in a day or two, then make the opening raid scene a flashback as well. The sudden cut from Grant to this grayed out scene without dialogue is very confusing, considering the events happened the day or two before, not months ago. Okay, great, Grant gets to say his line about Jaffa being guilty of fifteen years of unrestrained world terrorism, but making the scene a flashback is unnecessary.
G is for… Guns
Full details here at the IMFDB.
One of the very first shots of the film involves guns as Travis’s crew takes over the Italian house suspected of holding the DZ-5. There are lots of guns in the scene, mostly machine guns. All the bad guys get shot, and Travis’s men are so quick there’s barely even a shoot out. The scene also is used to illustrate the cohesive team Travis and his men are, which is of course the set up for how they work together on the 747.
The terrorists bring their guns aboard the 747 in pieces that they then assemble. The subtitles refer to them as Skorpion 9mm AKM/FNCs. Yes, I had the subtitles on because the characters mumble so darn much.
And, because terrorists are idiots, guns on the plane means there’s a huge risk of holes being shot through the fuselage, which depressurizes the plane, which ultimately causes a big mess and almost kills everyone. Not that there’s exactly room on an airplane for some kick-ass, well, ass-kicking martial arts and knife fights, but there’s got to be a way to not risk everyone on board by shooting holes through the only thing keeping depressurized and pressurized regions from each other. It’s stupid. It doesn’t matter that Hassan’s plan is to blow up the plane anyway; guns increase the risk of the plane being damaged over the Atlantic Ocean and not the target.
H is for… Helicopters
Another sad showing for helicopters; I need to find some movies that use them more. The only helicopter shown is the one used to get Grant and Travis’s team from the Pentagon to Andrews Air Force Base, and it’s a military craft.
I is for… Improvisation
Considering Travis’s team is missing Travis and gained two guys who don’t know what they’re doing (Grant and Cahill) they seem pretty well prepared. Okay, so they have to steal a camcorder from the luggage area (which Rat seems so very angry at for some reason), and get a little creative with their reconnaissance, but they seem to do pretty well. It’s got to be at least in part because there are so many guys on the team.
Baker taking over the tail lights to communicate with the fighter jets is of course genius.
Cahill saves the day with his chewing habit, and hopefully none of the passengers on the plane learn the only thing protecting them from exploding is a thin soggy piece of plastic from an unqualified engineer’s mouth.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
Sadly, no windows, doors, tables, or any other solid surfaces get jumped through or fallen through. Kind of hard to do on an airplane; they’re kind of designed so that sort of thing doesn’t happen.
K is for… Kill Count
Considering Grant is around solely for his knowledge, it’s not surprising he doesn’t kill anybody while trying to save the day. Travis’s team does all the killing, with Rat taking out Hassan.
L is for… Limitations
Grant is extremely far out of his league when it comes to taking on terrorists. He’s a knowledge guy, not an action guy. He can’t even improv his way out of the tuxedo he’s wearing when he’s called in for the briefing.
As for the rest of the team, their leader is dead, Cappy is hurt, they’re missing equipment, and they have to fit two new guys—Grant and Cahill—into the team with no prep time, which can’t be easy. Also, they’re completely cut off from the outside with no hope of help, so they have the added stress of knowing they’re all on their own.
M is for… Motivation
Hassan’s motivation is initially depicted as being the release of Jaffa, but he is actually on a suicide mission for the glory of Allah. He doesn’t seem to have told any of his crew this.
Grant’s motivation, as well as his team’s, is to save the hostages and make sure the bomb isn’t detonated. There’s also got to be some satisfaction in getting to take down Hassan, whom he seems to have been chasing for a while.
N is for… Negotiation
There’s a lot of negotiation, actually, in a movie where the main villain is said to not negotiate.
1) On the terrorist’s tape recording played over the phone, it’s explained the hostages on the plane will be held until Jaffa is released onto a private jet.
2) There’s an offer of half the passengers exchanged for fuel and 50 million in gold bullion. Also, if Jaffa is not in communication, another bomb will be set off in London.
3) Hassan says no to the negotiations, which seems to just make people try to negotiate with him even more.
4) Cahill says they should tell Hassan the plan to disarm his bomb and then negotiate, while Grant reminds him Hassan doesn’t negotiate.
5) There’s a senator (J.T. Walsh) on board the plane who offers to help Hassan get what he wants if no one gets hurt because it’ll make him look good for the upcoming election. Hassan later shoots him in the head to prove to the Pentagon that he means what he says and does not negotiate. Maybe it’s only because the President, whom the senator promised would talk to Hassan, is out of town.
6) A man at Gatwick Airport says if Jaffa can get Hassan to land the plane at an isolated base and release the passengers, Hassan will get what he wants.
7) Hassan keeps going even after Jaffa is free, and after knowing the US’s plans, which illustrates that he doesn’t care what anyone wants, he’s doing whatever he wants.
8) Hassan’s own second in command challenges him over the mission, and gets shot for his trouble.
9) The fighter pilots tell Hassan to divert the plane to Thule or they will shoot it down.
Frankly, for a film where it’s stated several times that the terrorist does not negotiate, there’s far more negotiation here than in anything I’ve reviewed thus far.
O is for… One Liners
Rat, when he sees Grant in his tuxedo: “Who’s this, 007?”
Rat (abridged): My Latin ass is gonna be raining all over Greenland.
Rat: I hope there’s a good movie on this flight.
Rat, when Grant needs to climb: Lose the shoes, pretty boy. Whew, hope the smell doesn’t give us away.
Cappy: It’s looking up the ass-end of a dead dog but we gotta try.
Secretary of Defense: Call the President. It’s an executive decision. (notable only because the viewer half expects the line to be delivered while the guy looks directly into the camera because it’s the title of the movie)
Grant, referring to Cahill’s chewed straw before he attempts to disarm the bomb: If things really get desperate, use your magic wand. (foreshadowing!)
Rat, when Grant is attempting to communicate with Jean: I just hope you have better luck with women than I do.
Grant and Baker, trying to read the seat number Jean wrote on her hand: 2-1, K. (together) 21K! (they’re just so excited that it’s amusing)
Grant, after landing the 747: These things almost land themselves, don’t they?
Cahill: Right now I need a drink. A big drink.
P is for… Profession
David Grant is introduced in an on-screen graphic as being the Beckings Research Institute Consultant to Army Intelligence. Granted there are numerous on-screen graphics introducing locations and people, but that may be necessary because there’s no other way to explain all of the set-ups for the needlessly complicated plot. I would think picking up with Grant’s introduction when he is called away from the party and writing it into his conversation at the Pentagon a little would be clear enough. And of course cut the stuff at the end with him landing the plane. It’s unnecessary. The very fact that his character is introduced while learning to fly the plane means there’s a good chance he’s going to need to apply that skill during the movie, which considering viewers probably go into the movie knowing it involves a plane, only foreshadows the film’s climax needlessly.
The movie actually has eighteen minutes of story and introductions before Grant is needed to do anything at all, which is a pretty long time considering he’s supposed to be the hero here.
Finally Grant’s importance is realized as he comes to the conclusion that Hassan is planning a major attack, that Hassan kidnapped Jaffa himself, that Jaffa has the missing DZ-5 from the opening raid, and that therefore Hassan has it on the plane. He’s obviously very good at his job, otherwise the other men in the meeting wouldn’t believe these leaps of logic. There’s a lot of tension between Grant and Travis over the events in Italy. Grant says that the DZ-5 was there but Travis was late, but Travis says Grant’s intelligence was wrong.
Interestingly Grant is reluctant to take a gun while on the plane, so firearms training isn’t a requirement for his position in the government. He seems to become the point person on motivating Cahill to diffuse the bomb, so he’s obviously much more comfortable dealing with people.
Travis’s men are Army Special Forces, but we don’t really seem to know much about them. The opening scene seems to serve as some sort of illustration of their teamwork ability. I also suppose here is a good place to point out that the casting people seemed to go out of their way to create a culturally diverse group: Baker is white, Cappy black, Rat Latino, and Sergeant Louie (BD Wong) is of Asian descent. It’s just very weird and noticeable. I’m almost surprised Baker isn’t a blonde or redhead considering both Grant and Cahill are white guys with brown hair.
Q is for… Quagmire
Overall the Hail Mary team is in quite a mess. Their radio is dead, there are terrorists, hostages, and a bomb above them, and the Pentagon will shoot the entire plane down if given reason to do so. At the beginning of their mission they have slightly less than four hours before they hit the point of no return, so to speak (US air space), so they’re also on a timeframe. Half of their equipment is gone or broken, and their leader dead. The bomb with the DZ-5 attached is very sensitive, can take out the entire eastern seaboard, and can be controlled by a sleeper with the trigger. Even Grant hasn’t seen a picture of Hassan in almost three decades, so he isn’t sure what he looks like, which means any of the terrorists could be Hassan until Grant is able to point him out.
Basically it’s only the individual skills of the remaining Hail Mary team, the fact that Cappy is only injured and not dead, and Jean’s assistance that get all of them through the mission.
R is for… Reality/Suspension of Disbelief
The Remora doesn’t exist, but it could, so that’s interesting.
I do, however, have a lot of trouble believing that the pilots of the 747 don’t feel when the Remora attaches and then stays attached to it until they are already in a dive. The Remora must be an awkward weight on the underside of the plane, so surely there’s either equipment that registers a problem or the pilots can feel it when they control the plane. Unless the Remora really is too negligible compared to the 747, and the pilots are using the autopilot.
S is for… Sidekicks
If Grant is considered the “hero,” because his name is in the credits first, then he has more “sidekicks” than Batman.
Jean the flight attendant is fairly intelligent, but doesn’t really have as big as role as she could if Grant didn’t have a commando squad behind him. She doesn’t reveal Grant’s position to Hassan when she sees him—without warning—in the elevator to the lower floor. She bravely asks Hassan why he’s taking hostages. She digs through Hassan’s jacket pocket and finds the map with Washington DC on it, while everything else is written Arabic. She picks up the phone when it’s blinking but not ringing, and listens as Grant tells her about the camera the terrorists aren’t noticing for some reason (nor do they notice the ones in the floor). She listens as Grant tells her about the sleeper, and does her best to discretely identify who it might be, and writes his seat number on her hand so she can show it to the camera. She also tries to drop a hint to the air marshal that the Army is onboard the plane by handing him a paper with a picture of a military man on it and telling him, “They’re here.”
She does, however, get demerits for continually looking at the camera. She’s only not discovered because the terrorists aren’t paying enough attention to her.
The members of Travis’s commando team obviously have their own specialties, such as Cappy with the bomb, Baker with communication tech, and Rat with being the recon guy. Grant is able to fit into their group and work with them to fill in the blank spots left by Travis, or those blank spots they didn’t know they needed filled.
Cahill gets an honorable mention because he wasn’t supposed to be on the 747 at all, just help get Grant and Travis’s men up there. Even he argues that he’s only an engineer. Fortunately he’s an engineer that chews on plastic straws, which of course becomes the key to saving the plane and everyone on board.
T is for… Technology
While not exactly cutting edge, the terrorist actions are called into the US Embassy using a payphone and a cassette tape, two pieces of equipment that will be unrecognizable to kids born in the last ten years, if not sooner.
Voice recognition software is used to pin down Hassan.
Cahill’s Remora for the ARPA is an experimental jet that can attach to aircraft in flight.
A laptop with plane schematics is used, and possibly the same
one is used to get into the 747’s system.
Travis’s men set up cameras everyone to spy on the terrorists.
The bomb is found with a tool that measures PPM, and is rigged with a microprocessor and sensors to keep people from tampering with it.
The commandos also have night vision goggles.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
I’m not sure how “unexpected” the slight romance is between Grant and Jean, considering he’s shown at the beginning of the film hitting on a woman and asking her if she likes hockey, so we know he’s single. This seems to be his go-to pick-up line for some reason, because he later asks Jean the same thing. He offers to take her to coffee, delivers his line, and she says she doesn’t like hockey, only baseball.
As the male and female leads, in a movie with a cast of twenty or so people, of course they’re going to get together, however improbably. “I loved you since you first startled the hell out of me in that elevator shaft,” you know how it is.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
Sadly the only vehicle being used as a weapon is Hassan using the 747 to detonate the DZ-5 bomb over Washington, DC.
W is for… Winning
At the climax of the film, all of the terrorists are dead except for Hassan and the sleeper, and Grant goes out to confront the latter. Rat kills the sleeper, Grant and Hassan face off. Hassan asks him who he is, and Grant informs him he’s no one.
Hassan shoots through the cockpit door/wall and kills the pilots, and Rat shoots and kills Hassan.
The movie should be over, considering the terrorists are dead and the bomb is neutralized, but of course it isn’t because A) there’s a gaping hole in the side of the plane because idiot terrorists shot through the outer hull, and B) there’s no one to fly the plane. Gasp!
So the viewer is treated to an unnecessary sequence of Grant trying to fly and land the plane while Jean reads the manual on how to do so. This of course brings the movie full circle, because otherwise Grant’s intro scene of him learning to fly a plane was pointless.
Cue cutesy scene with commandoes in the ambulance and Jean and Grant getting a ride together.
X-Rays, or Maybe You Should See A Doctor
The only good guy seriously injured in the film without dying is Cappy, who is sadly strapped in place with duct tape. He must be in incredible pain, and still has to try to guide novice Cahill on how to diffuse a bomb while only able to monitor his actions through the use of a mirror. Dude deserves a medal.
Rat gets shot but is likely wearing a bulletproof vest because while slowed down, he seems fine.
Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
Had Grant and whoever he worked with over the years not lost tabs on Hassan, or had tried to apprehend him earlier, perhaps none of the events in the film would have happened. Also if Travis and his men had gotten to the DZ-5 in the opening scene, the stakes of the terrorists taking over the 747 wouldn’t have been so high. It might not even have happened at all.
Zone, In The
Grant and even Travis’s men aren’t ever really in the zone, except maybe for Cappy and the bomb. Each man has his specialty, so there’s not really a call for any one of them to commit himself fully and wholly to something. Grant certainly comes close when he decides to disguise himself and take on the sleeper, even recognizing who it must be once Jean’s guess is proven incorrect. At this point Grant is committing himself to something and clearly has no intention of backing down, no matter the consequences to himself.
Well, that’s Executive Decision. It has its moments, and really a good foundational story, it just seems to get lost within its complicated plot and huge list of characters. The film could probably start twenty minutes into it and end fifteen minutes earlier and be almost the exact same movie, just tighter. The large cast is of course fun to see, especially almost twenty years later and realizing who was in it that I’m now familiar with but wasn’t back then.