Behind Enemy Lines
Behind Enemy Lines

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.

Cast: Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Gabriel Macht, Joaquim de Almeida, David Keith, Vladimir Mashkov, Olek Krupa, Charles Malik Whitfield, Kamil Kollarik
Writers: Jim Thomas & John Thomas (story); David Veloz & Zak Penn (screenplay)
Music: Don Davis
Cinematographer: Brendan Galvin
Producer: John Davis
Director: John Moore


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

I f it's true that there's nothing new under the sun, then Behind Enemy Lines is ample evidence. There's absolutely nothing in it that you have not seen before in movies like Enemy at the Gates (sniper duels), Saving Private Ryan (jittery hand-held camerawork during battle scenes, muffled sound after loud explosions), Pearl Harbor (Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay-style music-video direction with extensive use of slow motion), Three Kings (fast-motion visual enactments of things and events described in conversations), True Lies (one-handed rescue while hanging from a helicopter), The Matrix (rapid camera movements simulated with photographic montage), and any number of other action movies.

Though Behind Enemy Lines is derivative, it ain't dull. It is a good-looking, tautly executed high-energy thrill ride. If Behind Enemy Lines had been released last summer, it would have beaten most of the other summer movies for action entertainment hands down. Then again, if it had been released in the summer of 2001, the flag-waving jingoism would have seemed more silly than resonant, as it often did in Pearl Harbor--a movie that should now clean up on video.

But Behind Enemy Lines was not released last summer and would not even have been released this fall if 20th Century Fox hadn't accelerated the production schedule by some seven weeks to capitalize on our rediscovered patriotism. A little shameless, perhaps, but no less effective.

Behind Enemy Lines is the work of story writers Jim & John Thomas, proprietors of ominous credits like Mission to Mars and Wild Wild West (but also Predator!), and screenwriters David Veloz and Zak Penn, who own no significant credits at all. Their tale is about Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), a hotshot blond navy pilot with a Barbara Streisand nose assigned to air reconnaissance over Bosnia during the mid 90s. Feeling the U.S. military effort lacks a clear purpose, he yearns for action. Owen Wilson behind enemy linesOn a routine mission, he gets it. Burnett and co-pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) stray off-course over a demilitarized zone, where they see and photograph Something They Shouldn't. Serb commander Lokar (Olek Krupa) and his lethal underling (Vladimir Mashkov from 15 Minutes) shoot them down in a fabulous air sequence that has Our Heroes trying to dodge several missiles at once, and Burnett winds up on the run by himself. Making matters much, much worse, his commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) is handcuffed from mounting a rescue attempt until Burnett can get to safe territory. The NATO naval commander of the multinational coalition, misguided Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida from Clear and Present Danger and Desperado), forbids it because they dare not compromise the fragile peace process.

But you already know all this if you saw the trailer. It's pretty straightforward anyhow. It boils down to a U.S. soldier on the run from enemy forces in hostile territory, needing to survive long enough to be rescued. The simplicity helps, because this is an action movie, after all, and without a million subplots (see, e.g., Pearl Harbor), it allows director John Moore focus on delivering the adrenaline-charged goods. Yeah, we know how it will all turn out, but Moore manages a few surprises in the individual set pieces. Behind Enemy Lines features herky-jerky, short-attention-span direction that is effective at times, but would be more effective if used more judiciously. Moore has, however, found some striking landscapes to shoot in, and has washed out the colors, creating a forbidding, almost black-and-white look at times.

The actors do their jobs. Wilson has a boyish charm and droll sense of humor that makes him easy to identify with. This would have been a much lesser film with a poster-boy leading man. As for Hackman, he doesn't always get credit for it anymore, but he never phones in a performance. It just seems like he does sometimes, because he works so much and is always quintessentially Hackman. But he does find the nuance in most roles, assuming quite a few different personas. There's Gregarious Hackman, Charming Hackman, Sleazy Hackman, Introverted Hackman, Hard-Assed Hackman, Paranoid Hackman, Stupid Hackman, Grouchy Hackman. In Behind Enemy Lines, he's a combination of Hard-Assed and Grouchy Hackman, someone Admiral Piquet calls "an uncomplicated man."

Never mind that Behind Enemy Lines pretends to be based on a true story, that of Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady (shot down over Bosnia in 1995), when the film is obviously too preposterous to be true. Never mind that the otherwise intelligent bad guys are too often stupid when there's no other way for the screenwriters to get Burnett out of a jam. Never mind that the good guys shoot so much better than the bad guys. Never mind that we have a U.S. Admiral taking direct orders from a European, which would never happen in the real world--the sovereignty of the U.S. military is always a condition of U.S. participation in multilateral forces, even though we often expect our allies to give up theirs. Never mind that the film's chauvinistic portrayal of our allies as idiots and our sovereignty as necessary is possibly dangerous because that attitude provokes resentment, making those same multinational coalitions difficult to build. Never mind that the real victims of the Bosnian conflict are treated as an afterthought, even by Burnett. Never mind that this movie continues the disturbing trend of Short-Attention-Span Theater.

Never mind all that, because this movie is fun.

Review © December 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved

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