Behind Enemy Lines
2001, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by John Moore. Starring Owen Wilsonield, Gene Hackman, David Keith, Vladimir Mashkov, Gabriel Macht, Joaquim De Almeida, Charles Malik Whitf.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 30, 2001
“I didn't sign up to be a cop,” says Navy flyboy Lt. Burnett (Wilson), “and I sure didn't sign up to be a cop on a beat nobody cares about.” Boldly clichéd dialogue such as this hamstrings Behind Enemy Lines before it can really get started. Burnett's simplistic (but accurate) summation of the role of U.S. forces in the Balkans is the moral center of the film, which casts Texan Wilson (Shanghai Noon, Bottle Rocket) as a disenchanted Navy navigator who, as the film begins, has just given official notice that he wants out. Sent on a Christmas flyover mission as punishment for his assumed lack of professionalism, Burnett and his pilot (Macht) hotdog their way over a no-fly zone and, by chance, snap some recon photos of Serb forces in the act of covering up what appears to be a massive pit full of civilian corpses. The pair's F-18 is then shot down by the Serbs and Burnett is forced to “evade and survive” in the long, tall pines of Bosnia while being stalked by a rogue Serb commander (Olek Krupa) and his track-suited sniper (Mashkov). Out at sea, Hackman's Admiral Reigart is anxious to rescue “our boys” despite warnings from NATO head Piquet (Almeida) that doing so would endanger a fragile Balkan peace. To its credit, Behind Enemy Lines has some truly spectacular combat scenes. Director Moore arrives from the world of commercials and music videos and his skill with setting up blistering, cacophonous action is top-notch. The sequence in which the two airmen play cat and mouse with a pair of surface-to-air missiles is riveting stuff, and an outrageous bit that has Lt. Burnett outrunning a minefield in the act of exploding is so full of he-man bravado that you don't stop to think until much later just how improbable this admittedly exciting lead 'n' flesh ballet really is. Screenwriters David Veloz and Zak Penn have, however, simplified the nature of the Balkans conflict to Lt. Burnett's initial statement, and so much necessary information -- Why are the Navy fliers flying in the first place? What's up with those Serbs, anyway? -- is simply ignored, leaving the film to flounder its way along in a no man's land of hazy speculation. Assuming the audience doesn't care to bother itself with the intricacies of the NATO peacekeeping force and its Serbo-Croatian charges is one thing, but presuming we're incapable of grasping the interconnected threads of a major international event, such as the Balkan conflict, is another entirely. You get the feeling the filmmakers didn't want to make anyone think too hard about what's going on here behind the scenes of the main storyline, and that's more than a little insulting. Wilson gets top billing above Hackman -- which is only right because Hackman's role here is negligible -- and away from the comedy, away from the aw-shucks, surfer-dude meat of every other role he's done to date, he succeeds at playing the average GI Joe on the run from the bad guys. It's a feather in his cap, to be sure. Just think how awful things could have turned out had the role been given to, say, Arnold S.?