Behind Enemy Lines

As we have been reminded time and time again since September 11, the world as we know it has changed. Even in the way that Hollywood does business. Several high-profile films were pulled from release and locked up when it was determined that their subject matter might not be sensitive to the current climate.

So now comes “Behind Enemy Lines,” a 2002 release that was rush-released in theaters to take advantage of the current patriotic fervor. Developed and shot long before September 11, “Behind Enemy Lines” is a real flag waver, a cinematic recruiting poster that shamelessly borrows from “Top Gun” and other films.

“Behind Enemy Lines” also borrows from real life, but there isn’t one thing in the film that slightly resembles reality. Directed by former commercial director John Moore, “Behind Enemy Lines” plays like an expensive video game where the hero has nine lives and always wins.

Director Moore has a real hero in star Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon, Armageddon), whose blonde hair, uncharacteristic good looks and cocky attitude make him the perfect choice to play Lieutenant Chris Burnett, a Navy navigator who doesn’t play by the rules. Call him Tom Cruise light.

Assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the Adriatic Sea, Burnett’s mission is to keep the peace over Bosnia as NATO works out a treaty. Fed up with being nothing more than a cop on the beat, Burnett submits his resignation to Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), commander of the Vinson.

Burnett’s resignation is accepted, but not until he goes out on one final reconnaissance mission with pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). The fact that it’s Christmas Day doesn’t send up a red flag, nor that Burnett can’t reach his family before he takes off. Then there’s Burnett’s insistence that they veer off course, only to spot Serbian war crimes and troop movement.

Burnett and Stackhouse are spotted and shot down behind enemy lines. Stackhouse is immediately captured by the Serbs, but Burnett manages to escape. Using his training and wits, Burnett manages to stay one step ahead of the Serbs, while back at the Vinson Reigart does everything within his power to bring his man home alive.

The script by David Veloz and Zak Penn is extremely pedestrian, relying heavily on clichés. Once Burnett finds himself “Behind Enemy Lines,” he does some remarkably stupid things. Instead of taking his cue from real life U.S. pilot Scott Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia in 1995 and managed to evade his captors until his rescue, Burnett breaks every rule in the book.

In order to create superficial suspense, the writers constantly force Burnett out in the open where he becomes an easy target. Fortunately, the writers also rely on the tired cliché where the enemy is so inept they that can’t hit Burnett, yet every time he pulls the trigger he hits his target.

Since we’ve seen most of this before (the “Missing in Action” series and “Rambo: First Blood” instantly come to mind), the trick is casting someone in the role of Burnett that we care enough about to sit through it again. Wilson, who was so disarming as a serial killer in “Minus Man,” is extremely likeable here. Wilson plays Burnett a lot smarter than the written word, so even when he’s portrayed as being reckless, we know he will persevere.

Hackman is okay as the commanding officer whose loyalty to his men betrays his personal feelings. Reigart’s attempt to rescue Burnett are thwarted by Admiral Piquet (Joaquim De Almeida) of NATO Naval Command, who believes the life of one man isn’t worth jeopardizing the peace treaty process. This subplot is a waste of time, since we know from the outset that Burnett will be rescued. It’s nothing more than masculine posturing by the writers.

Indeed, “Behind Enemy Lines” is all masculine posturing, a standard action film that lacks the mass appeal of “Top Gun.” “Behind Enemy Lines” was made by men for men who like to watch other men beat the odds. That’s fine, but too much testosterone can also be a bad thing. What the script needs is a good dose of humanity, something it sorely lacks.

The writers come close in a couple of scenes, including a humorous encounter between Burnett and a young Bosnian rebel into rap music, and an eerie high-tech scene involving a heat sensor and a pile of dead bodies. The rest of the film is so predictable it amounts to nothing more than a waiting game for it to end.

Moore, making his feature debut, doesn’t totally embarrass himself. “Behind Enemy Lines” isn’t a bad film, but it is not a very good film either. Moore uses cinematic tricks to engage us in the action, including unique camera angles that become part of the experience instead of just a calling card for a new director. The scenes where Burnett and Stackhouse attempt to outmaneuver two ground-to-air missiles are extremely gripping and intense.

You just wish the rest of the film had the same conviction.


Owen Wilson soars above prosaic Behind Enemy Lines


Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Joaquim De Almeida, Gabriel Macht, David Keith. Directed by John Moore. Rated PG-13. 105 Minutes.


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