Behind Enemy Lines

Movie Information

Genre: Action War
Director: John Moore
Starring: Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Gabriel Macht, David Keith, Joaquim De Almeida
Rated: PG-13

Maybe I just don’t get it, but Owen Wilson — with his whiny, nasal voice and flat acting — isn’t my idea of a movie star. But then again, Behind Enemy Lines isn’t my idea of a good movie, so maybe he and the film are strangely suited to each other. Oh, sure, it has first-class production values and, despite TV-commercial director John Moore’s nonstop infusion of post-production gimmickery, it’s slickly made. But in the end, it’s a messy, xenophobic, testosterone-soaked essay in cliched, jingoistic nonsense that doesn’t even have enough respect for the audience to make an effort at appearing realistic. The film’s roots are in the real-life Lt. Scott O’Grady, who was shot down in Bosnia in 1995. After that, not only have the names been changed to protect the fictional, but just about everything else has been changed as well. The movie’s plot has so little relation to reality that O’Grady is but a footnote for Wilson’s gung-ho Burnett, a prototypical hotshot pilot (or in this case navigator), who is so fed up with rules and regulations and the fact that he’s not getting to shoot anybody that he’s resigning his commission. Not content with that, he happily talks his pilot into flying off course (court martial, anyone?), where they happen upon some Bosnian war atrocities in defiance of a carefully bargained treaty. Naturally, this gets them shot down by the Bosnians (in the film’s one truly good action sequence) and the pilot summarily executed. (It never seems to actually occur to Burnett that his buddy’s death is entirely his fault, but Behind Enemy Lines isn’t much concerned with thought.) Soon, Burnett is on the run from a Bosnian assassin. About now, the film decides that it’s axiomatic that Bosnians just plain can’t shoot. No hero in the history of film has ever so constantly begged to be killed, but his assailants miss him at every turn — a concept that becomes positively comical in the film’s final macho-encrusted encounter, which has to be seen to be believed. If this isn’t question enough, one has to wonder just exactly what Gene Hackman thinks he’s doing in the role of Burnett’s commander. It’s a role that’s aptly summed up by the old saw about an actor running the gamut of emotions “from A to B.” Hackman plays the part with the grim determination of an established actor in search of a paycheck, substituting a lot of lower-lip biting and looking serious for a genuine performance. It’s hardly surprising to learn that the director graduated from Sega commercials to this. The movie isn’t so much directed as conceptualized in an endless stream of remonkeyed imagery. I guess it’s a case of “everything old is new again.” Sixty years ago, filmmakers had an alarming tendency to “hype” the action in fight scenes by speeding them up. The only difference is Moore’s Big Box o’ Computerized Effects. Otherwise, it’s the same old thing — only more so. The film is apparently designed to appeal to the idea that audiences will only care about one simple fact: that our hero gets to kick a lot of Bosnian butt. It may work on that level, if that level appeals to you, but just why it also insists on presenting NATO and the French and any attempt at anything even remotely smacking of diplomacy as either idiotic or evil is another question, and a pretty troubling one. It’s not just that the film is a big, loud, dumb exercise in explosions; it’s the fact that it does so in a particularly mean-spirited, narrow-minded manner — not to mention the fact that it’s probably the most violent PG-13 film I’ve ever seen, but, hey, there aren’t any sex scenes and the “F word” is kept below the legal limit, so that’s all right, huh?

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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