Behind Enemy Lines Movie Review
Bosnian Muslims are doe-eyed victims, Serbs are scowling, mangy movie heavies, and American soldiers are the most important people in the world in "Behind Enemy Lines," a self-aggrandizing action movie being released earlier than planned to cash in on the current atmosphere of flag-waving.
Vaguely inspired by the shoot-down and rescue of Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady in 1995, the film stars ad-libbing wiseacre extraordinare Owen Wilson ("Shanghai Noon," "Zoolander") as a cocky F/A-18 navigator in a flashy "Top Gun" version of the U.S. Navy.
Downed over the former Yugoslavia while on a reconnaissance mission during a fragile cease-fire, Wilson is on the run from evil Serbs who know he photographed a mass grave of slaughtered Bosnian civilians. Meanwhile, onboard his home aircraft carrier, a barking-dog admiral played by Gene Hackman wants to mount a helicopter rescue, but his hands are tied by those nattering nabobs of the United Nations peacekeeping force, who have the audacity to think that not risking the cease-fire is more important than one American flyboy. How dare they!
Accessorized with gimmicky Hollywood subplots (for the sake of a showdown finale, there's one especially evil Serbian sniper who stalks Wilson), the film is directed by a fellow named John Moore, who got the job based on a SEGA video game commercial aired during the 1999 MTV Video Awards. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about "Behind Enemy Lines." It has nothing of consequence to say about war or heroism because Moore is too busy over-producing spastic club-mix rock video sequences of fighter plane launches and bullet-dodging pursuits through wintry woods.
Moore even sacrifices common sense for the sake of such cool visuals, having Wilson "hide" on vulnerable hilltops or in open fields so the director can employ dramatic, revolving 360-degree helicopter shots while toying with shutter speeds and frame rates for effect. The only time Moore's style over substance works in the movie's favor is during the seat-gripping first act when Wilson's jet is "painted" by Serbian radar and chased down by heat-seeking missiles. (But even that scene has the distraction of those ridiculous, only-in-the-movies computerized proximity alarms that blurt "Warning! Warning! Warning!" in a metallic female voice.)
The director himself admits to the dumbing-down of the story. The studio's press kit describes the revision of a scene in which Wilson was to painstakingly disarm a field of boobytrapped land mines. To quote: "Instead of going with this tension-filled scenario, Moore opted to ratchet up the action, a monstrous cavalcade of destruction, to what he calls 'almost ridiculous levels.'"
If "Behind Enemy Lines" can't cope with a little quiet tension, you can imagine how little mind is paid to the socio-political atmosphere in which the film is set. Sure, Wilson jumping off a cliff onto a grappling rope hanging from a helicopter gunship makes for good action. But the fact that this American soldier is the only concern of a navy admiral (who leads the rescue mission himself -- ha!) is also a glaring reflection of how our nation's media (news and film) encourage the willful, ethnocentric ignorance and arrogance of the American masses. We seem to want both our entertainment and our wars to be simplistic, expeditious, dangerously shortsighted, and goal-oriented to the point of tunnel vision.
Even if I'm over-thinking this point in the wake of Sept. 11, "Behind Enemy Lines" is still nothing but a hollow, high-gloss, high-pretension, military fantasy video game of a movie, blessed with a pair talented actors given just enough leash to keep it human.