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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) 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.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • Badass Bookworm: Grant. Also Hasan, who reads quietly in his seat in-between overseeing a hijacking.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: The 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.
  • Cool Plane: The Remora.
  • 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 makes 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Happens to Travis, who's barely mentioned for the rest of the film after his death.
  • 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.
  • Immune to Bullets: About half the cast. The Sky Marshall takes several rounds and survives long enough to be taken to 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.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Cahill said this almost word-for-word at the end. Kinda hard to blame him.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • Non-Action Guy: Dr. Grant, Dennis Cahill even more so.
  • Not Quite Dead: Captain Rat, who kills Hassan in the end.
  • 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.
  • Operation Game of Doom: The bomb onboard the plane had a core that would explode if anyone touched the laser security grid around it.
  • 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.
  • Right Man in the Wrong Place: Dr. Grant
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Doc (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.
  • 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. Jaffa blows his head off while they are talking to the Pentagon to make an example of how determined he is.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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