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Film / Broken Arrow (1996)

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Riley Hale: You're out of your mind.
Vic Deakins: Yeah! Ain't it cool?

Broken Arrow is a 1996 action thriller film directed by John Woo and starring Christian Slater and John Travolta.

Two stealth bomber pilots — Riley Hale (Slater) and Vic Deakins (Travolta) — are on a test flight while carrying a pair of live nuclear warheads. Deakins loses his marbles and attempts to hijack the nukes to ransom back to the U.S., but ends up crashing their plane in the middle of a national park. Undeterred, Deakins continues to carry through with the plan, leaving Hale to try and stop him with the help of Terry (Samantha Mathis), a sexy park ranger.

The term "Broken Arrow" is US military jargon for a nuclear weapons snafu, though the correct term for the plot is actually an "Empty Quiver" (stolen nukes) made to seem like a "Broken Arrow" (missing nukes).

This film was Western cinema's second proper introduction to John Woo's Heroic Bloodshed genre of film following 1993's Hard Target. The genre's popularity was cemented one year later in 1997 by Face/Off, which reunited Woo and Travolta.

Broken Arrow provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptational Badass: Giles Prentice the press secretary mentions in passing in he movie he did ROTC in Yale and got pretty far as a military man. In the movie nothing comes from it except as a Hidden Depths moment, but in the novelization he comes along in the helicopter during the climax and handles a machine gun when Wilkins is injured.
  • Anachronism Stew: The movie is set in the '90s, but park ranger Terry drives a Chevrolet K5 truck of early-'80s vintage and wears a uniform from the '70s.
  • Artistic License – Military: Two military pilots would not be permitted to pummel each other in a boxing match (particularly when they aren't even wearing protective head gear, something largely considered a requirement for a sparring match) just before a flight or at any other time. The military invests far too much money in training pilots to have them grounded either temporarily or permanently due to a concussion. Any pilot stupid enough to try something like this would find themselves with far more to worry about than losing a boxing match.
    • Also, Yale hasn’t had ROTC on its campus from 1968 when the entire Ivy League refused to participate over their opposition to the Vietnam War and later over their objections to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Giles is way too young to have been in ROTC at Yale before then.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics This film contains an amazing palette of both averted and played straight nuclear physics tropes.
    • Averted: After the crash of a Stealth bomber carrying nuclear missiles, it is correctly stated that the warheads cannot be detonated by burning jet fuel.
    • Averted: Chief Rhodes says that he is going to destroy one of the bombs by opening up the access panel and dropping a couple of grenades in there. That is a prudent action since it is an intended safety philosophy that nuclear weapons will be rendered harmless if they are tampered with.
    • Averted: Broken Arrow is the correct United States military nuclear incident terminology for a nuclear weapon being lost in transit. Curiously the actual incident is an Empty Quiver, that is to say theft of nuclear weapons, but the deception by the Big Bad Deakins makes it look like an accident. Or does it?! Because...
    • Played Straight: Deakins has his henchmen act as if they are dying in agony from radiation from damaged weapons. But Plutonium is only mildly radioactive (even human skin can block nearly all of its ambient radiation) and cannot induce acute radiation sickness.
    • Played Straight: Even assuming plutonium were highly radioactive, acute radiation sickness takes hours to set in. And when it does, you first become nauseous, then you feel all right for several days, and then you die from organ failure. It is not this instant affair that the henchmen put on a big show of.
    • Played Straight: And even assuming that acute radiation sickness is an instant killer, then the team — specialized in the recovery of nuclear weapons and equipped with Geiger counters — would have detected such a leak and never approached it in the first place. No-one would be fooled by the deception because such a behaviour would be incompetence of the highest order.
    • Played Straight: Hale says they are safe after nuclear explosion in the mine since it was underground. This is false since we see a big fireball that is chock-full of fresh fission by-products. Don't breathe this...
    • Played Straight: The underground nuclear explosion produces an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that knocks out all electronics in the area and makes a helicopter crash. But underground nuclear explosions do not produce this effect. Only atmospheric explosions can cause EMPs. And for the truly spectacular EMPs, those can only be caused by exo-atmospheric nuclear explosions. Finally: the helicopter is too old to be affected by malfunctioning electronics in that manner.
    • Averted: The villain tells his team not to shoot at the warheads. Even if he knows that they will not detonate from this, the admonition is warranted because if the weapons are damaged they will go from being valuable assets to useless junk (that might now be leaking radiation - maybe not enough to be immediately dangerous, but who wants to be exposed to more radiation than they need to?).
    • Averted: Hale says they will disable the weapons by entering the wrong access codes enough times into the PAL - Permissive Action Links - of the weapon. In real life this would work. But alas...
    • Played Straight: Deakins has swapped out the circuit boards on the nukes so entering the wrong codes instead activates the weapon without any possibility to de-activate it. In real life, these codes cannot be disabled, at least not by someone with Deakins's pay grade (although he admits that it cost him a couple of years' worth of savings to pay whoever he bribed to have this done) and especially not out in the wild.
    • Played Straight: The process of arming a nuclear weapon has several more steps than just authorizing yourself to the weapon. It is not the one-step affair we see in the film. This and the point above for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious.
    • And finally, averted, as the train carrying the nuke crashes with the momentum of the crash launching the warhead straight into Deakins' chest, through a few walls, and right into an exploding helicopter without it detonating.
  • Ax-Crazy: Vic Deakins answers to Hale yelling that he's nuts by blasting a barrage of rifle fire and shouting out "Hah!" and he calmly says that he doesn't gets why people say that killing someone up close is more personal than dropping bombs on them from a plane after he crushes Pritchard's throat.
  • Badass Normal: Terry is only a simple park ranger compared to the other characters who are military personnel, yet she is able to kill several enemy soldiers, even besting a sniper using a pistol.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Deakins incorporates his boxing techniques into his strategy in order to throw his opponents away from his actual target.
  • Bald of Authority: Colonel Wilkins, the CO of McMurren Base.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Despite taking several hits to the face, Terry has not a scar to show for it.
  • Berserk Button: Deakins' is insinuating that he's crazy.
    Hale: You got a head full of bad wiring.
    Deakins: What was that?
    Hale: You're fucked in the head, Deak!note 
    Deakins: (Angrily unloads several rounds of automatic fire) HA!
    Hale: I pissed him off.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Hale and his reinforcements arriving in a chopper to rescue Terry and stop the nuke from detonating.
  • Blah, Blah, Blah: When Baird reads aloud a prepared statement that covers up the truth about the B-3 crash.
    Baird: The United States Air Force regrets to announce that early this morning a C-141 heavy-lift cargo plane went down over the Utah desert. The status of the crew has yet to be determined, yadda yadda yadda ... Well, that's very nice bullshit, Rick.
    Rick: Thank you, sir.
    Baird: We'll go with that.
  • Blinded by the Light: Hale uses the sun to blind Terry when she first pulls her gun on him.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with Hale losing $20 to Deakins in a boxing match, and ends with Hale successfully beating down Deak and finding the $20 bill in the wreckage.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: A major complaint in Roger Ebert's review.
  • Bottomless Magazines
    • Hale fires maybe 40 rounds out of a 13 shot pistol and 6 round revolver in the mine shoot out without reloading once.
    • Also averted early in the movie. When Hale first gets the revolver, he fires six shots at the helicopter and has to ask Terry for more bullets.
  • Car Fu:
    • "Run him down!" Though he misses at the last second. One of his Mooks gets run over instead.
    • Also a with a helicopter near the end.
  • Chekhov's Skill: The rope-a-dope Deakins uses against Hale. Hale uses this to deduce Deakins is actually going east towards Denver when everyone (including himself earlier) thinks he's going west towards Salt Lake City. Later, he uses it against Deakins by dropping a dead Mook down one side of the train they're on, then swinging in from the other side.
  • The Chessmaster: Deakins is a master strategist, having planned several steps ahead of his enemies:
    • Air Force Pararescue team is send to secure the stolen nuke? Plant a mole within them.
    • Someone wanted to disable the nuke by dialing the numbers at random? Rewire the device to go off instead.
    • Putting a hospital tag that stated the nukes are to be sent to Salt Lake City when it is actually being delivered to Denver.
  • Clothing Damage: Terry loses her belt in the river. Later she strips off her jacket after it catches on fire from the spilled gasoline of the helicopter.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: In the novelization, after Giles Prentice reveals his Hidden Depths as having undergone ROTC and, in a case of Adaptational Badass, is part of the team on the chopper intercepting Deakins' train, he goes off "muttering through his teeth, like The Little Engine That Could, 'I want those fucks!'."
  • Comically Missing the Point: When Pritchett gets upset at Deakins for smoking.
    Pritchett: Do you mind?
    Deakins: No, I don't mind at all. (Offers Pritchett a smoke) Want one?
  • Conversation Casualty: During the flight, Deakins tells Hale to look at the window while he grabs a gun to shoot him. Fortunately, Hale sees Deakins' reflection and reacts just in time to save himself.
  • "Die Hard" on an X: Die Hard in a military plane and an national park.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sergeant Kelly.
  • The Dragon: Kelly.
  • Empty Quiver: The Title Drop is the former Trope Namer.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Pritchett may be part of the plan to steal two nukes and use them to extort money from the U.S. government, but he's not insane enough to actually detonate one. He just about shits a brick when Deakins reveals that he's doing just that.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Surprisingly Subverted with the truck that Riley and Terry steal - when it gets shot in the gas tank, it leaks fuel but doesn't explode. Even more: when Hale sets Deakins' truck on fire with a makeshift incendiary bomb, the explosion doesn't even disable the truck; the villains just stop and put the fire out with extinguishers. (Surprising because everything else seems to be Made of Explodium.)
  • Evil Is Hammy: Every speaking villain, especially Travolta.
  • Face Death with Dignity: As the nuclear warhead flies toward him, Deakins, rather than duck out of the way or run, stands up and grins at it.
  • Fake Static: Courtesy of Deakins' electric razor.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Deak. He's a chipper bastard.
  • Foreshadowing: Hale demonstrates that he's a bit more devious than Deakins thinks when he gives Deak $20 that he won on a bet...and then admits that he'd swiped it from Deak's wallet.
  • For the Evulz: Deakins' motives are never explained as such. Hale surmises that Deakins is Only in It for the Money, or maybe he's bitter about being passed over for promotion, but later decides that Deak is just fucked in the head.
  • Friendly Enemy: Deakins plays at this, saying that he still likes Hale even after trying to kill him. Hale, of course, points out that attempted murder kinda ruins the friendship.
  • Genius Bruiser: Terry nearly bites off more than she can chew by trying to sneak-attack a mook in Nerd Glasses and a lab coat.
    Max: You probably thought I was a computer nerd, didn't ya? Ha-ha-ha, wrong! I was a Navy SEAL, lady! You really should see what I can do with just my thumb! [draws a pistol and racks the slide]
  • Giving Them the Strip: Hale is seen wearing flight overalls for most of the movie, but in the end he wears only t-shirt. Terry removes her jacket and shirt after they become soaking wet, then put them back on, and finally ditches her jacket, when it was set on fire.
  • Guns Akimbo: Briefly featured in the ferocious battle within the copper-mines, with Hale killing a guy by shooting him with a revolver and a Beretta he's carrying in both hands.
  • Gun Fu: In pure John Woo fashion, the shootouts have a lot of dodging and shooting at the same time.
  • Gunship Rescue: Subverted. Twice.
    • First, Air Force Pararescue team arrives to the crash site in actual gunship. As they attempt to recover the bombs, Deakins' henchmen shoot them and capture their helicopter.
    • Second, operatives of Nuclear Emergency Support Team briefly confront Deak and Kelly only to be destroyed by bomb's electromagnetic pulse.
  • Helicopter Blender: The colonel has his helicopter fly alongside the train to chop some mooks chasing Hale on the roof of the cars. The first notices and drops, while the second catches the edge and gets his chest sliced open.
  • Hellish Copter: Every helicopter in the movie either crashes or explodes (or both).
  • Heroic Bloodshed: Liberally crossed with the western.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Deak hilariously and literally gets hit by the nuke he intended to slaughter innocent millions with. It doesn't detonate, though.
  • Home Guard: Giles Prentice mentions that he was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Yale, though it's unclear if he ever actually commissioned after graduation.
  • Honesty Is the Best Policy: When Baird prepares to release a statement covering up the B-3 crash as a C-141 cargo plane, Giles explais why lying is a very bad idea.
    "Aviation Week has been following the development of the B-3 for years. They have stringers — guys camping in lawn chairs — by the Whiteman perimeter fence watching for one of these things to take off. They're gonna know that one took off last night and they're gonna know...that it didn't come back. When our press release says a C-141 went down in Utah, they'll put two and two together. Aviation Week will run a story, everyone will know what really happened, and we're all gonna look extremely...stupid."
  • Honor Before Reason: Hale has Deak (who was out of bullets) at gunpoint. Deak has his hand on the detonator button. Instead of prolonging the Mexican Standoff, Deak ordered Hale to put it down then challenged him to a fist fight. May be justified in that Deak is insane and prolonging the standoff doesn't gain either side an advantage.
  • Idiot Ball: Colonel Wilkins' Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! moment degrades into this, as he, after being the Reasonable Authority Figure and knowing how Deakins dealt with Pararescue team and NEST operatives, decided to assist Hale with nothing but an unarmed helicopter and one assault rifle. No wonder he got himself killed.
  • If I Wanted You Dead...: While pointing Terry's own gun at her, Hale tells her that he could kill her if he wants to. He then lowers the gun so that the situation doesn't escalate.
  • I Lied: Terry's got Hale dead-to-rights with a gun she told him wasn't loaded. He reminds her what she said. She responds with this, firing it into the air to prove it.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Deak's Mooks are shooting at Riley and Terry while they flee in a boxcar. With an open door. That's made of wood slats.
  • Improvised Weapon: Hale makes one with a road flare and a gas can.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bomb:
    “It goes without saying, I guess, that the nuclear warheads in the movie come equipped with bright red digital readouts, so we can see how many seconds remain before they explode. Down at the old nuclear warhead factory, how, exactly, do the engineers explain the purpose of a digital readout on a bomb? Who will ever see it, except in a mad bomber movie? What purpose does it serve?” —Roger Ebert
  • Informed Flaw: Deakins gripes about Boone being an idiot, but nothing that Boone does supports that. Then again, Boone only appears during the Mission Briefing, so any idiocy of his goes unexplored.
  • Ironic Echo:
    Mr. Pritchett: You assured me everything would go smoothly!
    Vic Deakins: Everything is going smoothly, I assure you.
  • It Gets Easier: Sort of:
    Vic Deakins: I just realized something. I never actually killed anyone before. I mean, I dropped bombs on Baghdad, but, uh... never face to face. [Beat] I don't know what the big deal is. I really don't.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Terry pulls this one on Hale during their Mexican Standoff. She's lying, as she demonstrates after she's wrested the gun back from him.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Air Force Rescue Huey is a gunship, armed with forward-firing miniguns. However, early single-engine Huey gunships were flown without passengers due to the weight of the weapons and ammunition. However, one can argue, that retrieval team had only four men, with two can be counted as door gunners and other two are mitigated by removed rocket pods.
    • What would be harder to explain is the lack of gunsights in pilot cab.
    • Also, all Hueys have pilot station on starboard side. Movie depicts it as co-pilot seat.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Deak has two back-up plans. One, he knows an Air Force commando team will be sent in to secure the warhead so he buys off one of the members. Two, in case someone finds the bomb, he has planted a Salt Lake City radiology tag in the Hummer with it to make everyone think he's taking it west instead of east.
  • Large Ham: John Travolta is having the time of his life with Deak.
  • Language Equals Thought: One of the codifiers, and the best-remembered quote from the movie.
    Giles Prentice: A broken what?
    Secretary Baird: Broken Arrow. It's a Class 4 Strategic Theatre Emergency. It's what we call it when we lose a nuclear weapon.
    Giles Prentice: I don't know what's scarier; losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there's actually a term for it!
  • Meaningful Echo: "Sir, please turn around."
  • Made of Iron: Almost the entire cast, with one exception. Kelly hurts his hand hitting the side of a tunnel while shooting at a helicopter, and clearly gives a shout of pain.
  • Mexican Standoff
    • Hale with a gun, and Terry with a knife. Lampshaded by Hale: "This isn't a standoff, lady, I've got the gun!" Terry counters that she never keeps it loaded.
    • Also, Hale and Deak with the shotgun and remote detonator.
    • Lampshaded with Hale pointing a gun at one of Deak's men who in turn is pointing a gun at Terry, and when Hale tells him to stop the Humvee they're in, the guy says "Looks like we have a standoff." Hale's response? Shoots him in the leg and slams him headfirst into the steering wheel while shouting "No! We! Don't!"
    • A villainous one happens between Kelly and Deak.
  • My Defense Need Not Protect Me Forever: The classic Foreman/Ali "rope-a-dope" is referenced from the movie's very beginning, with Deak constantly having the upper hand over Hale in their first boxing match, and then again through most of the movie — until the very last fight, the implication being that Hale has pulled a rope-a-dope on Deak.
  • New Old West: Everything happens so deep in the desert that The Cavalry Arrives Late factors into the Big Bad's plan and the main theme (which also stands as Deakins' Leit Motif) has a long part where it's just a guitar strumming a simple Western-style tune.
  • No-Sell: Hale tries to shoot Deakins through the windshield of his truck, but the bulletproof glass foils him.
  • No Time to Explain: Hale says this when one of Deakins' choppers starts shooting at him and Terry and she asks him what's going on.
  • Not What I Signed Up For: Kelly, when Deak decides to arm the last nuke even though his escape has gone up in smoke, meaning that everyone on the train will die.
  • Offing the Annoyance: Deakins kills Pritchett for shouting too much. Not that anybody misses him.
    Deakins: Hush!
  • Oh, Crap!: Terry, when Hale tells her about the stolen nukes. And again when Hale's attempt to shut one down ends up arming it.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: A brief moment of "Agnus Dei" when Hale finds himself stranded in the Utah desert.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Before he went rogue, Deakins was considered a model soldier.
  • Parrot Expo What:
    Giles: A broken what?
    Baird: Broken Arrow.
  • Passed-Over Promotion: Major Deakins for an unspecified amount of times, and Captain Hale suspects this is part of his motive for his nuclear blackmail scheme.
  • Pin-Pulling Teeth: One of Deak's mooks does this due to one of his arms being all shot to hell.
  • Plucky Girl: Terry, notably for a 90's action movie, is not The Load. She's out of her depth when it comes to military tactics and nuclear warheads (understandably, being a park ranger), but Hale clearly wouldn't have gotten far without her help. She arguably graduates to outright Action Girl status by the end.
  • Prove I Am Not Bluffing: Why Deakins detonates one of the nukes in the mine shaft. He wants his threat to be taken seriously.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    • Hale during the aforementioned Mexican Standoff scene:
      "No! We! Don't!"
    • More amusingly, Deakins to an idiot henchman:
      "Please! Don't! Shoot! The! Nuclear! Device!"
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: After Hale is recovered, Wilkins has orders to take him back to base. He then disregards those orders to help Hale rescue Terry and recover the second nuke.
  • Second-Face Smoke: Deakins does this to Pritchett just because. This includes doing it to Pritchett's corpse shortly after killing him.
  • Short-Lived Aerial Escape: No less than four helicopters get totaled in this film!
  • Shout-Out: After taking down a helicopter with an EMP shockwave, Deak says "I say Goddamn!", a callback to Pulp Fiction.
  • Smug Snake: Deakins. Hale says this is why he's been passed over for promotion so many times.
  • Sniping the Cockpit: Hale takes down the first helicopter by shooting the pilot through the cockpit glass. The dying pilot falls over the controls, the chopper falls out of control, crashes, and explodes.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Wilkins and the pilot of the chopper that help Hale get to the train at the climax are still shot in the novelization, but the chopper doesn't crash and kill them. Instead they spend the whole part of the climax where Hale and Terry have to fight the bad guys on their own fixing the chopper after a crash landing and come back in a Gunship Rescue after Deakins is killed.
  • Spotting the Thread: When Hale and Terry reach the Abandoned Mine, Hale notices that the rusted old gate has a new lock. He then realizes that Deakins has been here and is using the mine in his plan.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: The briefing as to the effect of a nuclear detonation in Denver.
  • Stock Scream: The "Howie scream" got its name from this film note  after Howie Long, who plays Kelly and lets out this scream when he's falling to his death.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Okay, is there anything in this movie that doesn't blow up?
  • Tempting Fate: When Deakins decides to detonate the last nuke out of spite, Kelly holds him at gunpoint, saying he's not ready to die. These are his last words before Hale kicks him out of the train to his death. Played doubly as he also said he wasn't ready to die for Deakins' cause, which is exactly what he dies for.
  • Traintop Battle: The ending. A damn spectacular one, to be specific.
  • Underestimating Badassery:
    • Deak spends most of movie thinking that Hale is a spineless wimp. Hale proves him wrong by foiling his plans.
    • Terry attacks Max, one of Deakins's mooks, who is wearing a lab coat and Nerd Glasses. He flattens her, and smugly informs her that he's an ex-SEAL. However, this gets turned back on him when she throws a hammer at his head.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Riley/Terry
  • Unwanted Assistance: To quote Deak through clenched teeth: "Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons?"
  • Verbal Tic: Hale likes to bet $20.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Deak lets a few swears fly when Hale steals the nukes back.
  • We All Die Someday: Deakins throws this at Kelly when he hold at gunpoint, and believes he's as good a reason as any.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: During the fight on the train, one of the mooks gets the drop on Terry and Holt, but tries to get them to surrender instead of just shooting them immediately. At this point there's literally no reason whatsoever why any of the bad guys would want to take them alive.
  • The Western: Albeit a "Techno-Western".
  • Worthy Opponent: Deakins starts giving Hale more and more respect as the movie goes on and Hale proves that he has more guts than Deakins originally gives him credit for.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Hale does everything he can to stop Deakins, only for Deakins to reveal that he planned for just about every contingency, forcing Hale to up his own game in response.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Riley's reaction when his attempt to disable the first nuke ends up arming it, courtesy of Deakins' tampering.


Video Example(s):


Kelly's Downfall

The "Howie scream" got its name from this film after Howie Long, who plays Kelly and lets out this scream when he's falling to his death. (Although it isn't the first film to use it-that honor goes to the 1980 film The Ninth Configuration.)

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / DisneyVillainDeath

Media sources: