They represent flip sides of Macho Cool. John Travolta and Al Pacino both shot to stardom in the 1970s by playing streetwise Italian-Americans with all the right moves. Travolta boogied his way to the big time in Saturday Night Fever (1977), as the working-class dude who rules the dance floor. Pacino was anointed in The Godfather (1972), as the gangland prince who inherits a corrosive kingdom. Later, they both made some disastrous career moves. Travolta found himself upstaged by a mouthy baby in Look Who’s Talking (1989); Pacino squandered his credibility in Revolution (1985). But after major comebacks, both actors are now coasting on their success—with mixed results. Broken Arrow, an overwrought action movie, bursts the Travolta bubble. But in City Hall, a taut political thriller, Pacino delivers his sharpest performance since Glengarry Glenn Ross in 1992.
Broken Arrow overshoots its target by a country mile. Technically speaking, Quentin Tarantino is blameless for this bomb. He did
not write or direct it. He did not dust off a script from his days as a video store clerk and flog it in a Hollywood garage sale. And he does not appear on-screen, not even in one of his baroque cameos. But the movie owes a great deal to Tarantino. Not only did he engineer Travolta’s Lazaras-like resurrection in Pulp Fiction and steer him towards Get Shorty; he turned Travolta on to the work of Broken Arrow’s director, Hong Kong legend John Woo. Tarantino, whose fetish for kitsch has made him the David Letterman of American cinema, also seems to have convinced Western civilization that it is cool for smart people to like dumb violence as long as it is ironic. Sometimes, however, dumb violence is just dumb.
Broken Arrow takes its name from the Pentagon term for a lost nuclear device. Ostensibly, the movie is about a battle to recover two warheads that have dropped from a Stealth bomber and landed in the Arizona desert, undented and undetonated. But in brawling over these two smooth, slim and decidedly phallic objects of destruction, the movie’s two protagonists go to such lengths to demonstrate their manhood to each other that the term “broken ar-
row” suggests a more profane interpretation.
The action begins in a boxing ring, with Vic (Travolta) pounding some painful lessons into an outclassed sparring partner named Riley (Christian Slater). Mentor and protégé, Vic and Riley are crack military pilots with a bantering rivalry. But during a Stealth test flight, Travolta’s character turns out to be a nuclear terrorist. The two men spend the movie chasing each other across the desert while blowing up everything in sight, expending (according to the film-makers) at least 60,000 rounds of ammunition.
The Slater hero is paired off with a poutv
park ranger played by Samantha Mathis. This formula—straight-arrow commando teams up with sexy civilian—is the same one used in Speed (1994). And no wonder. The script comes from Speed’s Canadian screenwriter, Graham Yost. But in Speed, at least Sandra Bullock got to drive. Mathis mostly just gives directions. And while Speed suspended disbelief by sheer velocity, Broken Arrow lumbers along like a cargo plane on a milk run through Hollywood cliché.
Directing his second American feature (after Hard Target), Woo choreographs the action with undeniable finesse. But he seems
intent on giving Hollywood many movies for the price of one. He starts with Raging Bull, throttles up to Top Gun, then segues to a western with exploding helicopters. There are dry gulch shoot-outs, Stagecoach stunts on a train, mine shaft explosions, an Indiana Jones flume ride down an underground river, a James Bond doomsday countdown—it is like a trip through a studio theme park.
Travolta, meanwhile, keeps his dignity intact by acting hyper-cool, insulating himself within a movie all his own. He takes his time, calmly lighting cigarettes as all hell breaks loose around him. But his affectations of evil, while amusing, are unconvincing. It is a performance that could serve as an infomercial for Scientological self-esteem.
City Hall is more realistic fare. It is directed by Harold Becker, who cast Pacino as a New York City cop in Sea of Love—the smart thriller that launched the actor’s comeback but never won the prestige it deserved. Since then, Pacino won the Oscar for playing a blind, tango-dancing demagogue in Scent of a Woman. And he cannot seem to shake the scent—as a cop in the current film Heat, he is still making speeches to anyone who will listen.
Now, Becker gets Pacino back in line with City Hall. The actor is once again making speeches, but this time it is appropriate: he is portraying the mayor of New York. Like Travolta in Broken Arrow, Pacino plays mentor to a younger man. Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack) is a dedicated idealist who serves as deputy mayor to Pacino’s flamboyant populist, John Pappas.
The story concerns a scandal that erupts after an innocent black child is killed in the cross fire between an off-duty cop and a drug dealer. When Calhoun discovers that a phony probation report had kept the dealer out of jail, a web of mafia corruption begins to emerge. Based on a script by Ken Lipper, a former deputy mayor of New York under Ed Koch, City Hall seems richly authentic. It is a drama about ethical ambiguity, about middlemen who fill in the moral ground under their feet as they go along.
The movie boasts a strong cast, including Danny Aiello, David Paymer and Martin Landau. But the main narrative is divided between Pacino and Cusack, who serves as the hero. It is a frustrating compromise. Although Cusack is smoothly compelling, it is Pacino who intrigues us, and there is never quite enough of him. Meanwhile, a coy subplot promising romance between Calhoun and a defence lawyer (Bridget Fonda) is merely annoying. And the story’s upbeat denouement has the tacked-on feel of something cooked up by a Hollywood committee.
Despite all that, City Hall offers an absorbing political intrigue. Its gritty realism suits Pacino. As a politician who wields charisma like a cudgel, he has finally found a role that can contain his samurai style; he has recovered his edge. As for Travolta, it is time he stopped listening to Tarantino—perhaps Pacino is looking for a protégé. □
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