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Film / Executive Decision

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"I hope there's a good movie on this flight."

Executive Decision is a 1996 action film, directed by Stuart Baird (his directorial debut, as he's mainly an editor), written by Jim & John Thomas (of Predator fame) and starring Kurt Russell, Halle Berry, David Suchet, John Leguizamo, Joe Morton, Oliver Platt, B.D. Wong, and Steven Seagal.

Terrorists have hijacked a Boeing 747 en route from Athens to Washington, D.C., demanding in exchange for the hostages the release of terrorist El Sayed Jaffa, who had been recently captured and taken into United States custody. It is discovered that the terrorists are actually planning an attack on Washington, D.C., placing a bomb on the airplane that will release a large amount of nerve gas on detonation. A plan is devised to place a small team of United States Army Special Forces into the plane mid-flight to retake control and disable the bomb. If they are not successful, it may become necessary to shoot down the aircraft before it reaches United States airspace, sacrificing approximately 400 innocent passengers to save the lives of hundreds of thousands on the ground. That call is an "executive decision", meaning that it must be made by the President of the United States.

Comparisons with Passenger 57 and Air Force One are inevitable, and while Air Force One is the better known example of a "Die Hard on a plane" flick, this movie actually predates that by one year (both were also scored by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith). Notable for being the originator of Oceanic Airlines.

This film provides examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: To the point where the majority of the film is a very tense drama; most of the action comes from events like the hijacking, special forces boarding the plane, attempting to defuse the bomb, and Hasan threatening and shooting people, to the point where the terrorists don't even know the special forces are on board the plane until the action climax.
  • Action Prologue: Travisís raid, the movie itself wastes less time setting up the "Die Hard" scenario than most, as within about ten minutes after the prologue, the plane is hijacked.
  • Advertised Extra: Travis. Downplayed since he is fairly prominent in the first half of the movie, but he is billed as the Deuteragonist when he really isn't.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Played With: The heroes take turns crawling around in the crawlspace above the passenger cabin so they can spy on the bad guys. They spend most of the rest of the movie hiding in the cargo bay.
  • Anyone Can Die: Travis dies in a Heroic Sacrifice halfway through.
  • Artistic License Ė Engineering: In this film, a F-117 Nighthawk, which is a small, single-seat bomber in real life, is somehow modified to house an entire team of people inside (see Just Plane Wrong below).
  • Artistic License Ė Military: Travis and the Remora team perform their mission dressed in generic black fatigues, with not even parachutes or oxygen masks. In real life, the high-altitude stunt they are trying would require all of them to wear both parachutes and atmospheric flight suits for basic security reasons (which would have effectively saved Travis' life after the botched docking), just like the plane's pilot does in the same film. The presence of Grant wearing a tuxedo and Cahill in street clothes only makes this even more egregious.
  • Ax-Crazy: Hassan, whose entire plan boils down to killing millions of people to get what he wants, murders countless unarmed civilians for little to no reason, and continues to try to crash the plane even after his demands are met.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Grant figuring out Hassanís plan. Justified as Grant is an analyst.
  • Bad Boss: Even after Jaffa is released, Hassan continues with his plan anyway, and when one of the terrorists objects to this action, Hassan callously guns him down.
  • Badass Bookworm: Grant. Also Hasan, who reads quietly in his seat in-between overseeing a hijacking.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Grant spends most of the film wearing a tuxedo. Mocked/lampshaded when he meets Travisís team and they ask if he's James Bond.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Baker reveling how much of the gear didn't make it aboard.
  • Big Bad: Nagi Hassan, a rogue terrorist leader who turned Jaffa's organization against him and is planning on setting off a nerve gas bomb in Washington D.C.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The air marshall nonfatally shooting Hassan in the back. A non-action version comes from Cappy stopping them from cutting the wrong wire.
  • Boarding Pod: The F-117X Remora aircraft. Basically an F-117 with a boarding sleeve on the back and room in the back for passengers.
    • Interesting to note this was inspired by an early F-117 test where the aircraft's stealth was tested by seeing if it could be detected by a 747's collision avoidance radar.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Senator Mavros dies, after giving a Big "NO!".
  • But I Read a Book About It: Grant has had some (incomplete) pilot training in single-engine planes, and uses a manual kept in the cockpit to find the instructions on landing procedures when he has to land the plane. Such manuals are Truth in Television due to modern aircraft being rather complex to maintain and operate.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: there's quite a bit between the commandos as they head to intercept the plane, although it lessens once they're onboard.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The straw that Cahill has been chewing on throughout the whole movie becomes an incredibly important item in the defusing of the bomb on the final act.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Sky Marshal, who hides his badge and gun when the hijackers first make their move, knowing how well it would work if he tried to stop them all on the spot.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Grant's flying lessons.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Because Chappy spends most of the mission passed out (and when he's not, he's also tied down because of a spinal injury), Cahill (an engineer) has to do all the hands-on work at dismantling the bomb.
    • Also Louie, who isn't a medic, stabling Cappy with duct tape.
  • Communications Officer: Baker. One great concern he brings out is that the team's long-range communications equipment went down with the Remora so they can't reach the Pentagon, and he later helps Grant hotwire the plane's running lights to warn the escort planes that the team is onboard and give them five more minutes to try to take the terrorists down before they shoot the plane.
  • Complexity Addiction: Hassan's plan is this. So he wants to detonate his chemical bomb he smuggled over the US. The simplest plan would be to do almost nothing - let the plane proceed to destination, hijack it at the last minute, and crash it as planned. Instead Hassan stages a bombing in London and then tells the world about his hijacking, pretending it is to rescue Jaffa. This in turns gives the US both to respond. And while he might not have known about their ability to board the plane (which itself isn't sure as he's suspicious several times through the film), it also gives the US a chance to just shoot the plane down if it comes to it. Furthermore, Hassan's bomb is designed to go off automatically on landing - meaning neither he nor his men even needed to be on board and his plan would've succeeded.
  • Cool Old Guy: Secretary of Defense White. The "cool" part comes from being a Reasonable Authority Figure.
  • Cool Plane: The Remora. Being specific, it's a modified F-117 "Nighthawk" stealth bomber.
  • Covers Always Lie / Never Trust a Trailer: Although killed off quickly, Seagal's character was heavily featured in the film's marketing, as he was the most bankable star.
    • This was only in the international release. The American release had Kurt Russell solely billed above the title (he had some recent hits at the time as well, such as Stargate and Unlawful Entry).
  • Crash Course Landing: Except the heroes are attempting to use the flight manual rather than having someone talk them in over the radio. It helps that Grant was training to be a private pilot: He knows how to fly and land a plane, he's just never had to try with one as big or fast as this one.
    • Such a manual being in the cockpit of a commercial jet is, of course, Truth in Television. The heroes knowing where it is and how to use it is justified by them being a student pilot and a (non-pilot) member of the flight crew.
  • Deadly Gas: The whole reason why they board the plane midair in the first place.
  • Dead Star Walking: Travis, played by Steven Seagal, doesn't makes it past the first act.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Colonel Travis. Played by Steven Seagal, biggest badass of his team, he took the failure of the prologue's mission way too much to heart and spends most of the time around Dr. Grant (the man who provided the mission's intelligence) either full-on confrontational or visibly (and very barely) holding back contempt (setting up a trust-building arc), the marketing of course pitched him as one of the big heroes... nope, he doesn't even make it into the plane. Rat ends up in command and he spends a good chunk of the runtime visibly struggling with this, including trying to trust Grant.
  • Destroy the Evidence: One of the flight attendants throws away the passenger manifest, which would have otherwise revealed the presence of the Sky Marshal on the plane to the terrorists. The Big Bad thinks she hid it to hide the fact that a United States Senator is onboard.
    • Also mentioned that this will happen if they do shoot down the plane, which Hassan might be relying on for his Xanatos Gambit.
  • Determinator: Grant and the commados.
  • "Die Hard" on an X: "Die Hard" on a plane, with all of the regular twists including the hero becoming an impromptu pilot. The twist being that the protagonists have to get on the plane in mid-air and after that becomes a fubar, there's a whole lot of Indy Ploy struggling, including finding a way to tell the military that they made it in so the plane won't get shot out of the sky.
  • Disposable Pilot: Zigzagged. The Remora's pilot survives. The airline pilots make it to the last fifteen minutes, but ultimately fall victim to this trope to let Grant show off his Chekovs Skill. All three are also Badass Pilot to a realistic extent.
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Averted by Chappy, who manages to survive the film even after receiving a serious spinal injury, and the last we see of him heís being given medical attention after the plane lands.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even though Jaffa gets released like they wanted, Hassan still wants to go on with his original plan, and when a fellow terrorist objects, Hassan kills him.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: In this case, US Navy fighter pilots do. Which is a good thing, because this allows the team to tell them that they are onboard by hot-wiring some of the plane's running lights.
  • False Reassurance: Hassan telling Senator Mavros that he'll keep his offer to negotiate in mind.
  • Foreshadowing: In the middle of arguing during the Remora's interception flight, Travis argues with Grant about the hostility he's been showing the latter so far and Grant asks: "if you don't want me on this mission, why did you brought me along?" and Travis sarcastically asks: "who's gonna save the day? You?" Huh, about that, Colonel...
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Happens to Colonel Travis, who's barely mentioned for the rest of the film after his death.
  • Friendly Sniper: Louie is an unusually short distance version of this.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Hassan executing Senator Mavros as a warning.
  • Handicapped Badass: Cappy after his neck injury.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Travis closing the external 747 hatch right before the Remora conduit integrity fails.
  • Homage: The scene involving the F-14 interception was the last film appearance of Squadron VF-84, ''The Jolly Rogers'', before being decommissioned.
  • Hope Spot: The pilots regaining control of the plane before we see Hassan's Not Quite Dead.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Rat, who works out how to take out the commandos to eliminate the terrorists while Grant focuses on trying to figure out how to stop the bomb and later how to alert the fighters not to shoot them down.
  • In the Back: The Air Marshall does a heroic version to Hassan as heís about to shoot Grant. Then a wounded Hassan does this to Rat. In both cases itís not fatal.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Cahill said this almost word-for-word at the end. Kinda hard to blame him.
  • Interservice Rivalry:
    Baker (after the Navy pilots recognize their morse code): I take back every rust-pickin', squid-hatin' thing I've ever said about swabbies!
  • Jerkass: Whether or not the mission being done late means the intelligence was a bit faulty (the gas had already been moved) and whether or not this led to one of his soldiers being killed (that was Rat's fault, though), the reality is that Travis is way too confrontational all of the time he's around Grant.
  • Just Plane Wrong: The Remora is described as a modified Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, and the producers accordingly used footage of a real F-117 when seen from outside. There's a problem with this, though: a F-117 is a small bomber with enough space for a pilot and little more, while the Remora seen in in the film somehow has a sizable cargo hold and is accordingly used to transport entire teams of people. This oddity can be noted when the plane is first shown in a hangar, as the real aircraft looks only barely bigger than the group that is supposedly going to aboard it.
  • Karma Houdini: Jaffa is released from prison in an attempt to make Hassan abort his plan. Making this even worse is the fact that it doesn't work.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Senator Mavros tries to help Hassan contact the President so they can negotiate, but unfortunately he finds out what Hassan really wanted him for when Hassan pulls out his gun and points it at his face.
    Senator Mavros: [Hassan]'s got a gun pointed at me! Please, just do what they want! For the love of God, please, just do what they want! PLEEEEEEAAAAASSS-! (cut to the Pentagon situation room as they flinch from hearing the gunshot).
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Averted. Cahill does suggest trying to bluff Hassan down by revealing they know about the gas (which isnít a complete Dirty Coward move but is still a bit desperate) only to be told it wonít work.
  • A Lighter Shade of Black: Jaffa, compared to Hassan. Both are terrorist leaders, Hassan is obviously so psychotic that his subordinates only obey him because the alternative is summary execution.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Just relax and fly the airplane."
  • Motive Decay: in the movie, Hassan merely wanted to kill millions of people, and Jaffa did not authorize this action. In the April 1991 draft, Jaffa was behind the whole plan, and aside from killing millions of Americans, he intended to frame one of the Arab countries for the hijacking and destruction of the plane, and then make an alliance with a general in the Middle East (who may or may not be from said country.)
  • Mauve Shirt: the copilot who went down to the avionics bay, saw the team, stayed quiet, had some neat lines when the plane was nearly shot down by the air force and helped keep the plane from crashing after the Explosive Decompression.
  • Mundane Solution: The bomb is "defused" not with all the high-tech gear the soldiers brought on board, but rather by the simple expedient of thrusting a plastic swizzle-stick between two electrical contacts, thus preventing the detonator from firing.
  • Noodle Incident: Not in spirit (the audience is told that a bunch of agents retrieved Jaffa, the actual leader of the organization Hassan belongs to, afterwards), but nevertheless the sequence that shows the operation happening is a twenty-second montage of cuts that barely make sense, especially one in which a rabbi (apparently one of the agents) blows up a car with a rocket launcher.
  • Non-Action Guy: Dr. Grant (who is just an analyst), Dennis Cahill even more so (he is just an engineer).
  • Not Quite Dead: Captain Rat, who kills Hassan in the end.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Invoked when Grant is able to persuade Rat that attacking before they have much done on the bomb wonít keep it from going off (although as Rat points out even if they were blown up attacking at that point would save Washington).
  • Oceanic Airlines: The maiden flight of this very exciting airline in any work of fiction. The aerial footage was reused in many other works as a cost-saving measure, leading to Oceanic becoming a sort of industry in-joke along the lines of the Wilhelm Scream.
  • Oh, Crap!: One moment is when the hard drive apparently being used to control the bombís detonator, starts beeping loudly. Cappy barks at the team to stop their assault and warns them that ďsomeone just ran a program test on the bombĒ. This alerts the team to the possibility of a sleeper agent among the passengers with orders to detonate the bomb if something feels wrong. The second is when Cappy instructs Cahill on a circuit bypass and tries to cut power to the bombís hard drive - only for it to beep and smoke, indicating that it was a decoy all along.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Hassan gets shot a couple of times, but doesn't seem to be inconvenienced by it much until after he kills the pilots and Rat puts him down. Speaking of Rat, him getting shot just knocks him out for a few minutes.
  • Operation Game of Doom: The bomb onboard the plane had a core that would explode if anyone touched the laser security grid around it.
  • Plot Armor: About half the cast seem to be Immune to Bullets. The Sky Marshall takes several rounds and survives long enough to be taken to the hospital. The Big Bad gets More Dakka'ed to near death, yet is able to get up and take out the pilots. Rat gets shot in the back with little more effect than being knocked unconscious for around thirty seconds, though it's likely he had a bulletproof vest on and played dead to catch Hassan off guard at the best possible moment.
  • Postmodernism: For most of us a movie begins when we see the trailer or the poster; Steven Seagal's character, Travis, features prominently in these places. So we figure he's the guy who will save the day and are doubly shocked when he dies. Utterly brilliant.
  • Redeeming Replacement: Rat, not that Travis was particularly bad, but Rat is less hostile to Grant.
  • Right Man in the Wrong Place: Dr. Grant. Travis didn't even wanted him to get on the plane.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: White, the secretary of defense. He listens to Grant quickly and believes his theory, wants an alternative to shooting down the plane and seeks one in Cahill but also values Travisís opinion about whether or not itís worth trying. When the team is assumed lost he then calls in planes to shoot the airliner down, but with clear regret, and while waiting until the last minute. Also Rat, who proves much more accommodating to Grant and works with him well compared to Travis.
  • Red Herring: There is a terrorist sleeper agent hiding among the passengers with a remote detonator to the bomb. The team thinks that one passenger who is acting suspiciously is said sleeper, but it turns out that he's actually a diamond smuggler.
  • Renegade Splinter Faction: A very rare one-man example. It is eventually revealed that Hassan orchestrated for Jaffa to be arrested by government agents so he would be able to organize the terrorist strike that the whole film revolves around under the guise of doing it to order Jaffa's release, heavily implied to be because Hassan didn't like how Jaffa wasn't killing infidels fast enough.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Col. Travis, played by Steven Seagal.
  • Scaramanga Special: Hasan brings his pistol (which he uses to signal when to start the takeover) disassembled and the pieces spread through his hand luggage. He goes to one of the plane's bathrooms to assemble it.
  • The Smart Guy: the gray-bearded terrorist who sets up the camera for Hassan to relay his instructions, and is the only one to protest continuing with their mission after Jaffa is released. Cahill, Cappy and Grant himself fill this for the good guys.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Hassan is a very erudite man who calmly explains why he's doing what he's doing. He also wants to nerve-gas the entire Eastern Seaboard and will beat up and blow away as many people as it takes to accomplish this goal, even his own men.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Dennis Cahill, the engineer whose role on the mission was supposed to end the moment the team boarded the plane, is the one who defuses the bomb when Cappy (the bomb specialist) becomes incapacitated.
    • The plan to place the U.S. soldiers in the plane almost goes to hell (alongside both planes) because of a random encounter with turbulence. It still destroys the Remora and kills several soldiers and necessary equipment, forcing the rest of the team to improvise.
  • Suicide Attack: Hassan's original intention for taking the plane. Best case scenario, he still takes a couple of hundred passengers with him, but what he really wanted was to nerve-gas most of the Eastern Seaboard.
  • Suit with Vested Interests:
    • Senator Mavros, who is among the passengers, tries to defuse the situation because if he manages to do so, his aide tells him, he will obtain PR brownie points that he could ride all the way into a presidential ticket. Hassan blows his head off while they are talking to the Pentagon to make an example of how determined he is.
    • A second, brief non-antagonistic example is Secretary of State Douglas. Heís concerned with the president looking bad if they shoot down the plane whether it has gas on board or not, although he limits this to fretting and doesnít actually try to stop White. Of course the president's image, at least as far as how other countries view him, is at least partly his job.
  • Supporting Leader: Captain Rat, after Travis' death.
  • Taking You with Me: Hassan uses his chance for a Last Breath Bullet to empty his machine gun into the cockpit and kill the pilots, hoping the crash will set off the bomb.
  • Title Drop: After the Remora is apparently lost and nobody knows if the team made it onboard, Secretary White orders for someone to contact the President, because the order to shoot down the plane is an "executive decision" (read: only the President can authorize it).
  • Too Happy to Live: The flight attendant gushing about her recent wedding is the first to die when the hijackers take over the plane.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Over the course of the movie, Grant goes from a nerdy (but still kinda suave) nobody to almost fearlessly taking on the terrorists with the Army Special Forces as if he was one of them; this was best shown when he fought the sleeper.
    • Grant wears a US Naval Academy class ring, so he already had taken some levels, being a former Navy or Marine officer.
    • Cahill is a straighter example, although he remains a Non-Action Guy.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The moment Travis explains how the retaliation plan is going to go (get inside the plane, locate bomb and terrorists, apply sleep gas on passenger cabin and defuse bomb, land plane, Cahill and Grant are to stay in the Remora and the latter is there only to provide intel to Travis's team by radio) you just know that it's not going to happen that way.
  • Unfinished, Untested, Used Anyway: Zigzagged: Cahillís Remora is tested, just not for quite those circumstances and while it doesnít work perfectly it does get them on there.
  • Villainous BSoD: Hassan doesn't take the reveal that his bomb has been found and disarmed well.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Doc, of Travis's team, who would have administered the knockout gas onboard, and Allison the flight attendant.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • There are two other members of the assault team that go down with the Remora with Travis, but they are not mentioned or even acknowledged.
    • The last time we see Jaffa he's on a private jet telling Hassan that he'll be flying to safety, before Hassan ignores him and continues with his plan. It's implied by the officer that told Hassan that he was being let go and him remaining free depended on whether or not he could convince the terrorists on the Oceanic flight to surrender, so there's a chance he was arrested soon afterwards.
    • The pilot of the stealth plane clearly survives it's destruction thanks to a parachute but it was over the ocean and it's never mentioned if he was found and picked up.
  • Worlds Expert On Getting Killed: Travis is the main authority in dealing with hijacked planes but is killed fast. This is downplayed and justified though; Travis was an authority on re-taking planes on the ground and dies boarding one in mid-air (something out of his element) while still being able to pull a Heroic Sacrifice, and those of his men who make it aboard do carry about the mission successfully without any of them being killed..
  • Xanatos Gambit: If not for the soldiers Hassan would have either destroyed the east coast (whether or not Jaffa was freed) or been shot down in a way that would have been impossible to prove he had nerve gas or would have crashed, finishing the administration. Unusually for the trope it's unclear if he'd seriously considered the second alternative.
  • You Are in Command Now: Rat, the team's second-in-command, has to step up when Travis gets killed.