Behind Enemy Lines
Screenplay : David Veloz and Zak Penn (story by Jim Thomas & John Thomas)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Owen Wilson (Lt. Chris Burnett), Gene Hackman (Admiral Leslie Reigart), Joaquim de Almeida (Admiral Piquet), Gabriel Macht (Stackhouse), Olek Krupa (Lokar), Vladimir Mashkov (Tracker), David Keith (O'Malley)
Director John Moore, an Irish-born veteran of the world of television commercials, makes his feature film debut with Behind Enemy Lines, a jingoistic adventure tale about a Navy fighter pilot trying to safely escape after being shot down over Bosnia. Moore has obviously spent a great deal of time studying the films of Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and other commercial-auteurs-turned-film-directors, and he apparently set a goal right at the beginning to top them in terms of sheer visual lunacy—freeze frames, 360-degree whip pans, slow motion, fast motion, anything and everything goes into his cinematic blender. The reigning philosophy here is, if you can't make it good, make it incoherent.
Moore takes aim right away at the opening of Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986), a movie Behind Enemy Lines often emulates without any of the humor or sheer guilty pleasures that makes that movie so profusely watchable. Pumping up the soundtrack with an utterly indistinct rock tune (where is Kenny Loggins when you need him?), Moore gives us a hyperkinetic introduction to the world aboard an enormous aircraft carrier and its fleet of F-18s and mix of cocky fighter pilots and hard-nosed Marine soldiers.
Cockiest of all is Lt. Chris Burnett (a woefully miscast Owen Wilson), although he has nothing to be cocky about because he signed up to be a fighter pilot, but feels like a cop in a neighborhood no one cares about. Missions are few and far between, and those that he does get are lacking in any action or excitement. Thus, it's not much of surprise when he talks his copilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) into deviating from the course of a routine reconnaissance mission to snap some digital photographs of mass graves in the forested hills of southern Bosnia. They get their plane shot down for their troubles, and after Stackhouse is summarily executed by the corrupt Serbian military led by the generically evil Lokar (Olek Krupa), Burnett is on the run.
The U.S. military force in the region is led by the gruff-but-caring Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman). Reigart wants to sent in the cavalry to get Burnett, but his hands are tied by Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida),a French military official in charge of the NATO peacekeeping force. Piquet fears that if Reigart sends in the Marines to get Burnett out, it will undermine a fragile peace accord and lead to a new war in Bosnia. As much as Reigart blusters about how the American people want their boy brought back home, Piquet is unremitting, keeping his eye on the larger picture (the fact that Piquet's long-term assessment of the situation has a palpable salience is interesting, and it ends up undermining the enthusiasm we have for Burnett's rescue, making him seem, indeed, expendable).
Most of the action takes place in the Bosnian countryside, with Burnett scrambling through the wilderness to various points where he thinks he will be rescued. Meanwhile, what seems to be the entire Serbian army is following him, with anti-aircraft guns, tanks, and AK-47s, all of which they unload in Burnett's direction on several occasions without every actually hitting him.
As Behind Enemy Lines is primarily an action movie (despite its occasionally weak nods toward being a political thriller about the complexity of national coalitions working together to secure peace in a war-ravaged region), Moore concentrates primarily on choreographing mayhem. Each action sequence is lovingly designed and executed, but that doesn't mean that they're enjoyable to watch. Rather, they come off as too loud, too hectic, and too obviously designed. There's an aesthetic quality to the violence that runs entirely counter to Moore's obvious intent to depict combat as chaotic. A good example is a scene in which Burnett finds himself in the middle a field of tripwire land mines that explode in carefully timed plumes of smoke and fire just behind him in a perfect pattern that could only be designed by a special effects expert.
In fact, if there is an overriding theme in Behind Enemy Lines, it is the submission of logic to style. Moore and cinematographer Brendan Galvin lavish great effort on the movie's visuals, which come almost entirely to the detriment of the narrative's believability. Consider a scene in which Burnett escapes the clutches of the Serbian army for the umpteenth time, in this instance by disguising himself as a Serbian soldier, his face and head hidden underneath a black ski mask. Of course, before he's anywhere near being in the clear, Burnett removes the ski mask and turns around. The only possible explanation for such a ridiculously stupid move is the aesthetic qualities of watching Owen Wilson remove the mask in slow motion and turn around for a full, movie-star-quality backward glance while the soundtrack swells with an overburden chorus of human voices.
Of course, the fact that it's Owen Wilson doing all this is another of the movie's problems. Wilson is a fine actor who has effectively played in diverse roles, but the key to his success is in quirky, character-driven parts. Here, he has no character to play beyond the basic "cocky fighter pilot" cliche. The humor supplied to him by screenwriters David Veloz and Zak Penn (working from a story by Jim Thomas and John Thomas) is curiously unfunny, relying as it does on Britney Spears cracks and ruminating on how famous rock stars like Buddy Holly and Richie Valens wouldn't have died if they had had better pilots.
Wilson simply doesn't have the overdetermined masculine screen presence to pull off the sub-John Woo slow-motion action that is demanded of him. When he bursts out of a snow bank firing his 9mm automatic, it almost plays like parody, although it's clearly not intended as such. Although, come to think of it, seeing Behind Enemy Lines as a parody may be the only key to deriving true enjoyment from it ...
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick