Sunday 3 July 2011

Broken Arrow

I’d heard rumours Broken Arrow could be an exploding helicopter classic. With whispers it might contain no fewer than three chopper fireballs. Broken Arrow didn’t disappoint. In fact it exceeded expectation, delivering four, yes, FOUR exploding helicopters.

The plot sees renegade air force pilot John Travolta steal some nuclear bombs by faking the crash of his bomber. His co-pilot (Christian Slater), who’s not in on the plot, tries to get them back.

The action begins when Christian Slater – overdue for the sort of Hollywood career resurrection from which Travolta benefited – is trapped in a canyon with a local park ranger he’s been thrown together with.

One of Travolta’s henchmen has commandeered a helicopter and is in pursuit of the couple. Slater’s plucky companion distracts the chopper pilot whilst he takes aim with a pistol. He shoots the pilot causing the copter to cartwheel forward. The rotor blades crunch into the ground and shear off. However, the momentum takes the chassis forward causing the tail rotors to flip forward and nearly shear the park ranger in two. Fortunately, Slater miraculously – very miraculous as he was previously a 100 yards away – appears and pulls her to safety. Whereupon the helicopter blows up.

Or does it? Because director John Woo, perhaps in a bid to save time, money or effort cheats with the camera angle. We don’t see the helicopter actually explode, we just see flames appear from the place we expect the chopper‘s wreckage to be.

Later in the film one of the stolen nukes explodes just as an army helicopter is on the verge of apprehending John Travolta. The resulting electro-magnetic pulse shuts down the electronics on the helicopter causing the pilot to lose control. It had been hovering just above the ground and suddenly pitches forward. The rotor blades again sheer off as the impact on the ground. It rolls forward and explodes in a sumptuous fireball of saturated oranges.

“I said goddamn what a rush!” Says Travolta in the tic-heavy, mannered style he‘s mistaken for acting in this film.
John Woo doesn’t cheat with this explosion. We get to see it in all its rich Technicolor glory. However, the one minor gripe is that someone on the special effects team was clearly too trigger happy with the old detonator as the helicopter explosion starts a fraction before it hits the ground. Sloppy.

As the film approaches its climax Travolta attempts to make good his escape with the nuclear bomb on a freight train. Slater has been dropped onto the train by an army helicopter, which continues to maintain a close presence in an attempt to help. However, with the freight train heading towards a tunnel the pilot leaves it too long to pull up and avoid the oncoming cliff. The helicopter, predictably, explodes.

John Woo treats the audience to several views of this explosion. Perhaps to convince us that he really is blowing up the helicopter this time. Minor gripes, are the utterly hapless piloting of the chopper. Would a military pilot really be so stupid to steer directly into a cliff?

As the fight continues along the train we see that a helicopter has been parked on one of the trains carriages. Slater evades the goon and is able to hide underneath the train. Travolta believing its time to leave orders everyone to the chopper. However, there’s a fuel leak and before the pilot can heed Travolta’s warning the helicopter explodes.

Relevance to plot

Given the military backdrop to this film the presence of so many helicopters is entirely plausible. Woo takes advantage of the scenario and blows up as many as he can.

Artistic merit

Before he ballsed-up his career in Hollywood John Woo had carved himself out something of a cult reputation as a master stylist of action sequences. He brings some of that to Broken Arrow.

The use of slow-motion on some of the chopper fireballs and showing the same sequence from multiple angles are all tricks he’s used previously. Particularly enjoyable for the exploding helicopter aficionado is Woo’s crumpled rotor blade fetish. He’s clearly got a thing for it as he rarely misses an opportunity to show rotor blades getting crunched up or spinning off.

Filmed before CGI took over the world all the explosions have a natural look and feel.

Number of exploding helicopters


Number of improbable escapes from helicopter

There are no survivors. Everyone dies.

Exploding helicopter innovation

There’s much good work by John Woo in this film, but it has to be noted that he does not push forward the boundaries of exploding helicopters.

The why and how of the exploding helicopters is all very conventional. However, I have not previously seen a helicopter destroyed by an electro-magnetic pulse before. Perhaps a cinematic first.


In Broken Arrow John Woo delivers the mother-load of exploding helicopter action in this film. A minor grumble is that exploding helicopter fanatics could reasonably have expected a little more imagination from a master action stylist like John Woo. But this should not overly detract from a film which is a classic of the exploding helicopter genre.

John Woo we salute you.


  1. I hope you gave yourself a wipe-down after watching this.

  2. I lit a cigarette after finishing the film.

  3. Great write-up of a 90s classic. 4 exploding helicopters? Have to re-watch this again. Only remembered the electro magnetic pulse one.

  4. Thanks Ty. Woo seems to have got the whole exploding helicopter business out of his system with this film. He's never made another film with one in.

  5. I have long thought that every 'copter seen in that film exploded. Wrong, the one that brings Hale back to his Army pals (before the train chase) is the only one that gets spared! That 'copter doesn't know its luck...