Unlike the recent Tony Scott war drama, "Spy Game
," which stumbled in its lackluster attempts to be an arty, important motion picture, the similar "Behind Enemy Lines" wisely has chosen to be nothing more than an entertaining, loud popcorn flick, and it's better for it. At a fast-moving 106 minutes, "Behind Enemy Lines" succeeds at everything "Spy Game
" failed at, especially in its presentation of two characters who unexpectedly find an emotional bond with each other, and in the chair-rattling, edge-of-your-seat action sequences.
Wasting no precious time in getting going, fighter pilot Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), who has decided to end his military profession in four days because of not feeling as if he is being used for anything worthy, is assigned a routine reconnaissance mission on Christmas Eve. While flying over the war-encumbered countryside of Bosnia, Burnett and partner Lt. Michael Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) are spotted by Serbs photographing things they aren't supposed to be seeing, and consequently shot down.
After Stackhouse is executed, Serbian military leader Lokar (Olek Krupa) and his assassin (Vladimir Maskov) turn to chasing down Burnett, who has flown too far over enemy lines to be retrieved. Meanwhile, back at the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) is trying to set up an illegal rescue mission, feeling an insufferable amount of guilt for sending Burnett out in the first place.
"Behind Enemy Lines," the directing debut of John Moore, has little to say about the social and political situations in Bosnia, and does not bother attempting to. Instead, screenwriters David Veloz (1998's "Permanent Midnight
") and Zak Penn (1994's "PCU") have decided to create a nonstop chase film along the lines of 1993's "The Fugitive." As such, "Behind Enemy Lines" includes some of the most exciting, vibrantly edited action sequences of the year (the jet/missile attack near the beginning is a real show-stopper), and two well-defined central characters whose union we strongly sense growing throughout.
Owen Wilson (2001's "Zoolander
"), that of the eccentric nose and offbeat movie role choices, does an impressive job at fulfilling the requirements of a somewhat reluctant action hero. Wilson is just the right casting choice for the part of Lt. Chris Burnett, as he is arresting enough to pull off the long stretches where he must play off of no one but himself, as he runs through the Bosnian mountains and war-torn cities. As Admiral Reigart, Gene Hackman's fourth film appearance of the year (after "The Mexican
," and "Heist
") happens to also be his very best. Hackman invokes Reigart with a palpably effective sense of both confliction and desperation, and is utterly mesmerizing doing it.
In finely tuned supporting parts, underrated actor David Keith (2000's "Men of Honor," but best known by myself as Drew Barrymore's dad in 1984's "Firestarter") has a dynamic role as Reigart's second-hand man, while Gabriel Macht (2001's "American Outlaws
") is subtly emphatic as the ill-fated Lt. Michael Stackhouse.
"Behind Enemy Lines" receives its power not from overloading the viewer with flag-waving, melodramatic scenes of self-congratulation, but in quietly thought-provoking moments where the sheer devastation of war is evoked through such images of a destroyed clothing store, and a valiant statue that has had half of its face blown off.
With alternately luscious and gritty cinematography by Brendan Galvin, and a marvelously innovative, at times even eerie, music score by Don Davis (2001's "Valentine
"), "Behind Enemy Lines" is a crackerjack thriller. There is the occasional far-fetched plot points (why, for example, does Burnett consistently choose the highest altitude to hang out at when he is supposed to be hiding?), but the film never suggests it wants to be the poster child for war movie realism. "Behind Enemy Lines" is a thrilling action picture for anyone who enjoys getting their auditory and visual senses assaulted, and their nerves absolutely wrecked.
©2001 by Dustin Putman