Colonel Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) is leading his men on a mission to retrieve stolen nerve gas from a Middle Eastern terrorist group, and they manage to knock out their defences in the hideout but are in for a disappointment: the gas has vanished and they have been sent on a wild goose chase. Back in the United States three weeks later, government consultant Dr David Grant (Kurt Russell) is taking his flying lessons and has been allowed to fly solo, but soon something will distract him from that: an airliner hijacked by those terrorists...
The heyday of aeroplanes in crisis disaster movies was the seventies, but ever since there have been attempts to revive the genre for a one-off, and Executive Decision was a nineties example, only somewhat in the shadow of the Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One. What everyone who saw this came away talking about was the twist about forty-five minutes in, where co-star Seagal, who up till that point has been looking every bit the man of action, meets an ignominious fate. For many this was enough to recommend it, and it's true the film did lack a sense of spectacle for most of the running time.
Dr Grant ends up on one of Travis's missions when the plane is hijacked by Islamic fundamentalist Nagi Hassan (David Suchet) demanding that his brother (Andreas Katsulas), also a terrorist, be released by the West. But he has a trick up his sleeve in that the nerve gas is now contained onboard the plane and he is planning to unleash it on Washington D.C. if his requests are not met. Of course, this was made before the tragic events of September 2001 and watching it now, putting fictional terrorists in a plane they plan to crash with devastating effect isn't quite as much fun.
If you can put real life to the back of your mind, then you should find this relatively painless, but also strangely unexciting. After the palaver that gets Austin's men on board using a Stealth fighter which "docks" with the airliner, along with Grant and engineer Cahill (Oliver Platt) who for no good reason has to climb up into the belly of the plane as well, the action is not so much claustrophobic as restricted. Much of the time is spent seeing the cast of heroes whispering to each other in cramped, confined spaces, which is far less tense than it sounds.
The script by Jim Thomas and John Thomas is good at getting the characters into situations where there doesn't appear to be any way out, yet the payoffs are oddly unmoving. Halle Berry gets very little to do as a plucky stewardess - she doesn't even land the plane Karen Black-style at the end - and some of the cast seem overqualified for such a meat and potatoes thriller in the sky, including a sadly underused J.T. Walsh as a senator meant to epitomise the weak authority figures who have allowed this crisis to occur. Elsewhere, the gung ho aspects are leavened with humour verging on the ridiculous, such as when special forces man Joe Morton ends up semi-paralysed and dictating how to dismantle the bomb to a panicky Cahill, in between passing out. So if Executive Decision is as unmemorable as its title, it does at least offer the chance to see underrated action hero Russell strutting his stuff. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.