John Woo's first Hollywood film was only a modest success. In 1993 Hong Kong's master of ballistic action was little-known in the west, and Hard Target didn't take off in the way it deserved to. To really make it with American audiences, Woo needed to make American movies - and that meant blowing up some helicopters.
The exploding helicopter is one of the images synonymous with action cinema in the west. By the '80s a helicopter's very purpose in an action film was to explode. On a poster or in a trailer, an exploding helicopter is almost the ultimate visual shorthand for excitement. Even on The A-Team, a show where no-one could ever die, a chopper had to be taken out from time to time - its crew inexplicably climbing unscathed from the wreckage.
In Hong Kong, things are different. With A Better Tomorrow (1986), Woo had helped drag Hong Kong action cinema out of the ancient "martial world" and into modern settings but due in part to tight local budgets, even his new themes didn't allow for the fiery destruction of rotor aircraft.
After easing himself in with Hard Target, Woo fully immersed himself in American action cinema with his next effort, Broken Arrow (1996). Set in Utah and starring John Travolta and Christian Slater as a pair of USAF pilots fighting over a pair of stolen nukes, it is the archetypal '90s American action movie.
It has high-ranking military men arguing in a situation room. It has Howie Long as a henchman (the most prominent use of the "Howie scream"). It has Samantha Mathis as a tough sidekick, but not so tough she doesn't fall for Slater in the end. But the element which makes Broken Arrow so essentially a part of the '90s American action movie mythos is its embarrassment of riches in the exploding helicopter department.
No less than four choppers are blown up in Broken Arrow. They're spaced quite evenly through the runtime, as if they are the film's framework. Their causes are varied: from a sabotaged fuel line to the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. More than anything, they are Woo's signal that he could fit right in as a mid-'90s American director. He didn't need to repeat the trick, and his very next film was more idiosyncratic, more personal - and more profitable. But it was with Broken Arrow and its four glorious, exploding helicopters that Woo won his seat at the top table in Hollywood.
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