Acclaimed Hong Kong action director John Woo ("Hard-Boiled," "The Killer") stumbled with his first American movie, a Jean-Claude Van Damme effort titled "Hard Target." That film was taken out of his hands by the studio and was a thorough mess by the time it was released.
But now Woo bounces back with a nail-biting, white-knuckle thriller, "Broken Arrow," and audiences will get to see why critics have long hailed him as one of the best action directors of our time.
And it won't hurt box-office prospects that a big-time movie star is attached - John Travolta, in the uncharacteristic role of a villain.
Travolta plays Vic Deakins, a cocky, hot-shot pilot who has been passed over for promotions so many times that he's become embittered. In the opening sequence, Deakins is pummeling his co-pilot, Riley Hale (Christian Slater) in a boxing match, goading him about being too nice a guy to follow through and go for the kill.
So, later, Deakins thinks it'll be easy to pull off his daredevil, psychotic plot with only wimpy Hale to challenge him.
That plot takes form when Deakins and Hale are assigned to a pre-dawn training mission with a pair of live nuclear devices aboard their top-secret B-3 Stealth bomber. ("Where else can you fly a $2-billion plane, 800 miles per hour, 150 feel off the ground?" Hale notes.)
As they pass over the deserts of southern Utah, Deakins releases the bombs (so that they'll land without going off, of course), and tries to kill Hale in the process. But Hale ejects from the plane.
Shortly after releasing the bombs, Deakins also ejects, then meets his team of crooks, who will help him hold up America for ransom.
Meanwhile, Hale links up with a young park ranger (Samantha Mathis) and together they try to stop Deakins, employing stunts that would make Indiana Jones blush.
But story is secondary here. The action and stunts are the thing.
And does Woo deliver the goods.
The "Wow!"-factor here is very high, as "Broken Arrow" is loaded with eye-popping narrow escapes, explosions, special-effects and cliffhanger plotting, but without the gratuitous gore that has so often accompanied such films in recent years. The film moves at a breathless pace, and Woo choreographs everything perfectly with his swooping camera shots - including multiple heli-copters going into fireballs, a train crash and a below-ground explosion that ripples the earth.
Travolta plays his psychotic military officer as super-cool, holding an ever-present cigarette in an affected manner between his first and second fingers and calmly warning his cohorts, "Would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapon?"
Slater, meanwhile, is quite good doing the hero bit, and, surprisingly, Mathis gets to perform her share of heroic stunts as well. (Though she seems somewhat young for her character.)
If you've been yearning for a full-blown, action-packed movie to thrill you without grossing you out, look no further.
"Broken Arrow" is rated R for violence, profanity and vulgarity.