Shallow, vapid crap—that’s what mainstream movie-goers hear critics griping about all the time when we talk about Hollywood films. We bemoan the lack of substance in glossy packages, and we beg for ideas of some kind—any kind—to be part of the menu.
Well, we’ve all been dead wrong. After Behind Enemy Lines, it has become obvious why Hollywood generally avoids getting too thinky on us as it delivers testosterone and fireworks. When you’ve got a simple, straightforward hero-in-peril adventure like this one, it’s best not to muck up the works with facile international relations lectures between scenes of choreographed mayhem.
Behind Enemy Lines is the kind of story that should have been incredibly hard to screw up. Cocky Navy jet navigator Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is starting to wonder why he ever enlisted in the first place when all he’s asked to do is run reconnaissance missions over Bosnia. During a period of tricky peace negotiations, Burnett and his pilot stray into a no-fly zone where they photograph illegal operations by Serb para-military commander Lokar (Olek Krupa). Shot down by Lokar’s troops, Burnett finds himself alone and running for his life, unsure whether his commander Reigart (Gene Hackman) will be permitted to launch a rescue operation that could jeopardize the peace process.
What’s not to like about a bring-our-flyboy-home scenario like that one? Twentieth Century Fox pushed the release for Behind Enemy Lines up from its originally scheduled date in 2002, no doubt convinced that America was hungry for a ripping good yarn about a resourceful Yank soldier making his way through a treacherous, unfriendly foreign land. This wouldn’t be a film about the U.S.A. engaging in “video game warfare.” This would be the story of a man removed from his shell of technological invulnerability, forced to survive by his wits. “Use your training!” Reigart barks at Burnett over the radio. As Burnett does exactly that, we’re left with the stirring, reassuring notion that we’re not going to win just because we’re richer than the enemy, but because we’re smarter, too.
Contributing even more to the film’s stockpile of goodwill is the unconventional casting of Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) as Burnett. The drawling, laid-back Wilson won’t remind anyone of fellow Top Gun Tom Cruise with his broken nose and crooked smile, but his lack of matinee idol looks or action star buff-itude helps his cause here. As he squares off against one of those silent, ruthless assassins (Vladimir Mashkov) we all love to hate, we know that if he wins, it’s not because he’s swinging the biggest stick, or because he’s the movie star and winning is what movie stars do. This guy’s mind is working all the time, and Wilson’s way with an off-handed quip makes him more fun to watch than a dozen Cruises or Schwarzeneggers lined up end to end.
And just in case Behind Enemy Lines needed anything more, there’s plenty of creative action in rookie director John Moore’s arsenal. After a corker of an airborne dogfight between Burnett’s Superhornet jet and two heat-seeking missiles, Moore keeps things popping with a visual style that blends herky-jerky point-of-view shots with super-slow-mo concussive blasts from Claymore mines. Brendan Galvin’s unusually dark cinematography takes the sheen off the loudest set pieces, giving the film a bit more edge than you’ve come to expect from rowdy adventures.
Behind Enemy Lines has all that going for it as visceral entertainment—and then it commits the cardinal sin of pulling out a soapbox. Written by Zak Penn (Last Action Hero) and David Veloz, Behind Enemy Lines tries to take the old-fashioned war picture into the era of international “peacekeeping” operations. These are not times where an enlistee “gets to punch some Nazi in the face at Normandy,” Burnett grumbles of his role as sky-cop to the world. It’s harder to tell who’s on our side, and harder to justify saving every American life as a policy priority when entire populations face extermination. “You may save your man,” a NATO commander says of Reigart’s cowboy efforts to initiate a rescue, “but you risk the lives of thousands tomorrow.”
A provocative notion, certainly, but one that has no place whatsoever in the film we’re watching. This isn’t a thoughtful exploration of how the actions of the American military impact other nations—it’s about getting our hero to safety. There’s a fundamental hypocrisy behind suggesting that the fate of one man doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, then making the fate of that one man the absolute core of your story. Burnett even gets to punch one of his antagonists in the face just like he wanted to. Never mind that the unauthorized actions of Burnett and Reigart may put innocent lives at risk—they’re the Americans, and that means they’re the good guys. Behind Enemy Lines wants to have its philosophizing and its whoop-it-up climax, too.
You can tell Behind Enemy Lines doesn’t understand the kind of film it’s supposed to be as the closing credits approach. That’s when we get the dreaded “what happened next” epilogue—on-screen text explaining how key characters fared in the wake of the film’s events. It’s ridiculous to play such epilogues straight in a drama about fictional characters, but it gives you a sense of the disconnect between Behind Enemy Lines’ roots as gung-ho entertainment and its pretensions at dissecting challenging issues. If I ever want a lesson in the complexities of contemporary geopolitics, I don’t want it coming from the guy who wrote Last Action Hero.
Behind Enemy Lines (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by John Moore. Starring Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman and Olek Krupa.