Isn't it time that we retired the term summer movie? In an America hooked on a quest for the ultimate joyride, ''summer movies'' have become the entertainment of choice for every season: They're what we watch what we crave all year round. Audiences are sure to line up at the multiplex for Executive Decision, an airborne action thriller starring Kurt Russell that packs the kind of heavy-duty expensive wallop stunts, bombs, terrorists who enunciate like headwaiters we've come to count on for an evening's jollies. In Italy, an American task force, led by the anvil face of Steven Seagal, searches for a cache of deadly weapons; in London, a suicide bomber blows up a restaurant. The international-crisis setup is a tease, a way of making the movie look more complicated (and timely) than it is. In truth, we're about to be subjected to another thriller about another mad terrorist who takes another set of hostages, all to see his plan sneakily undermined by another smart-ass rebel jock.
This time the terrorist is an Islamic fundamentalist (David Suchet) who hijacks a 747 to Washington, D.C., stashing enough poison nerve gas on board to kill everyone on the Eastern seaboard. The jock is David Grant (Russell), a U.S. intelligence analyst who, along with the aforementioned task force, smuggles him-self aboard the jetliner. Since the crew's radio gets wiped out, the President must make a fateful choice: Should he shoot down a planeload of innocents to avoid the risk of Armageddon? That's the decision to which the title refers. Executive Decision, though, is such a bluntly impersonal thriller that the title might almost be describing the production honcho who greenlighted yet another Die Hard clone.
Early on, there's an exciting sequence in which the U.S. team flies under the jet in an experimental stealth craft, which gets attached, like a mechanical succubus, to the larger plane. As the soldiers wriggle up into the belly of the 747, the two vehicles begin to twist apart; the scene has a dizzy, in-the-air precariousness. The stealth craft then disengages and goes crashing downward, taking Seagal with it. Normally, I wouldn't describe that as a major loss, but Executive Decision needs all the personality it can get.
With the heroes now aboard, the film gets down to its modus operandi, which is to turn Russell and his crew into sweaty anonymous handymen. And oh, there is much to do! They have to set up the micro video cameras so they can spy on the cabin. They have to defuse the bomb attached to the nerve-gas canisters. They have to defuse it again. They have to fiddle with computers, and fiddle with black cords and red cords. The movie's numbing barrage of logistical detail suggests that America, in its fixation on the hidden mechanics of thrills, has become a nation of vicarious techno-tinkerers. At times, we might be watching some special action edition of This Old House. It doesn't help that actors as lively as John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, and Joe Morton are reduced to walking flowcharts, or that the terrorists, led by the suave, pursed-lipped Suchet, are portrayed as if they were the staff of the world's meanest falafel establishment.
Kurt Russell, cast as a desk jockey who's forced to become a man of action, gets to show fewer colorful (or witty) turns of mind here than he did in a routine B-movie workout like Tango & Cash. By the time he crawls out of the plane's bowels to confront the enemy, we're so eager for something to happen that every gun battle, every bomb-ticking-down-to-the-wire climax, seems a cathartic payoff. That's the way these movies work: They delay the inevitable until the inevitable feels like deliverance. At the preview screening I attended, some audience members whistled and clapped, but the enthusiasm for the moments when the good guys kicked ass had a rote, rah-rah quality. Very '80s. Executive Decision doesn't take you anywhere you haven't been, and it doesn't attempt to. That, in a sense, is what the audience is applauding: that it's gotten another go-round on a ride that never ends.