A group of Middle-Eastern terrorists have hijacked an airplane flying from Greece to Washington D.C. Their demands – the government must release their leader from a military prison, if not they will kill the hostages onboard.
An elite special operations teams is tasked with covertly boarding the plane in mid-air in an attempt to stop the terrorists and take control of the plane. Dr. David Grant (Kurt Russell) an Army intelligence consultant is ordered to assist them. Although he has no field experience, his participation is crucial in identifying the terrorists.
The team quickly runs into a major snag. During the nail-biting mid-air transfer, the teams skilled leader (Steven Seagal) is killed and Grant discovers the terrorists have brought a deadly nerve gas onboard that can potentially kill thousands. The terrorists are planning on using the plane to release this DZ-5 gas over Washington.
This changes things for Grant and the remaining squad. They must secretly navigate the plane to find ‘the sleeper agent’ who can detonate the gas, they must avoid getting seen by the hijackers, signal to The Pentagon not to shoot them down and that they made it safely onboard and then ultimately retake the plane, take out the hijackers, secure the nerve gas, save the hostages and safely land this plane back onto the ground.
Executive Decision is yet another ‘Die Hard On A’ actioner that came out in the wake of the 1988 hit that rewrote the action genre. This time it’s ‘Die Hard On A Plane’, but unlike the 1992 Wesley Snipes film Passenger 57, Executive Decision is a better made, more exciting story with Russell further cementing his status as the ‘action everyman’
The film begins with Seagal’s team special force team infiltrating a terrorist fortress and discovering the alleged DZ-5 nerve gas that was supposedly stored there and was their ultimate purpose of their mission is nowhere to be found. Seagal feels the intelligence they followed was faulty and blames Grant for this major misstep, which resulted in one of his men being killed.
Fast forward to terrorist Nagi Hassan who has organized the takeover of a 747. He claims he wants the release of his terrorist brother Jaffa, but Grant suspects Hassan has more complex motives for this attack.
Grant believes Hassan is planning on using the plane as a way to release the DZ-5 onto the east coast of the U.S. The higher ups are skeptical, including Seagal. But not wanting to risk this possibility Grant is ordered to accompany Seagal and his team during the mid-air transfer. Also there, is tech engineer Oliver Platt.
The mid-air transfer between the planes is a highlight and the most complex action scene in the film – and it delivers the goods! Of course things can’t possibly go as planned and it become a tense situation to keep both planes flying while also trying to keep the terrorists in the dark they’re being boarded. The men scrambling up the sleeve, the planes hitting turbulence, screws coming undone, both planes diving. It’s good stuff!
This is also the part that shocked audiences by seeing action icon Seagal bite the dust! When it was first released, much of the audience might have thought this was going to be a Seagal/Russell team-up action film. Those suspicions are quickly extinguished seeing Seagal quickly exit the film and handing the reins off to Russell. It’s one of the biggest shocks in the film. Especially considering how Warner Bros. promoted Seagal in the film. It’s no surprise audiences were stunned by seeing his demise.
It’s quite peculiar how Seagal, who at that point was the action leading man at the time, agreed to do this ‘cameo’. I’ve read that Seagal’s appearance was a contractual agreement for Warner Bros. Supposedly he wasn’t keen on filming this death scene and was quite difficult during filming.
WIth Seagal’s asking Russell, “Who the hell else is going to do it….you?”, sets thing up that Russell is the hero of Executive Decision.
Onboard the 747, he starts to work with the squad to begin sneaking around the plane to pinpoint the terrorists, indentify the ‘sleeper’ and formulate a plan. They’re under the passenger cabin, they hang over it, installing pinhole cameras while also hitting the baggage area to see if this DZ-5 is onboard.
The military squad is headed by John Leguizamo. Who is actually very good in the role. There’s no hint of stand-up comic persona or his lighter roles. Joe Morton is the tech guru who has to disarm the wired DZ-7 while being paralyzed. Using Platt as his assistant brings in some chuckles as he feels very beleaguered and overwhelmed being in the middle this whole thing.
Meanwhile, Russell has made contact with a pretty flight attendant played by Halle Berry. It’s not the most demanding role, but Berry is effective in the film. This was supposedly the first film where Berry scored a one million dollar payday. It’s not the most challenging part, but she looks very pretty, looks scared when it’s called for and is the only real notable female in the film.
I also have to note that J.T. Walsh shows up and brings his slimy presence to a Senator onboard who comes into the sights of the Hassan. No matter how small a part he had, Walsh always stands out to me because he’s just so good!
The violence is pretty hardhitting, almost surprisingly so. There are some pretty nasty, visceral deaths in Executive Decision.
The film doesn’t shy away from making these terrorists as bad and inhumane as it can. There’s no nuance, no shadings, they’re just straight up nasty, vicious and evil. That’s where the film hasn’t aged well.
Suchet is very menacing. He’s calm, cool, unflappable, smart. He makes a very effective villain from his Hassan. His comrades are just vicious thugs. It’s odd to see how the Middle Eastern characters are portrayed today. If this was made today, the baddies would certainly have more shadings than just being portrayed as they are here.
Most of the film unfolds in small compartments around the airplane. Crawl spaces, elevators, shafts, ducts, compartments. It’s very much Die Hard sneaking around. Things only open at the climax where the team tries to take out the baddies, stop the sleeper from detonating the gas and the plane taking so much damage Russell has to take the controls and land it. It’s all really well done.
Naturally, from his experience Russell earns the respect of the Special Forces team and even lands a date with Berry, along with saving the country.
A booming rallying score by Jerry Goldsmith, some fun character quirks and one-liners, nice eye candy from Berry and Marla Maples, a lot of suspenseful scenarios that need to be solved and Kurt doing the ‘every man’ in a situation where he really has to man up and prove himself, not only to himself but to his military comrades. Executive Decision is a very satisfying Saturday night actioner.