*½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Joaquim de Almeida, David Keith
screenplay by David Veloz and Zak Penn
directed by John Moore
by Walter Chaw John Moore makes his directorial debut with the high-volume, flag-waving Behind Enemy Lines, but the film so recalls the visual excesses of Top Gun and Enemy of the State (down to a satellite surveillance sequence) that I began to wonder halfway through if "John Moore" was a nom de plume for Tony Scott. Everything else about Behind Enemy Lines, after all, is basically a retread: the third Gene Hackman "not leaving a man behind" film after Bat 21 and Uncommon Valor, and the umpteenth time the veteran actor has been asked to play a snarling iconoclast, spitting in the face of an unfeeling establishment.
The film is an exhausting collection of airplane CGI Firefox-style and heroic slow-motion establishing shots with shutter-staggered sprints through minefields, tripwires, and large-calibre gunfire that would be more at home in a chop-socky Van Damme opera. With a streak of blood worn proudly on his temple as representative of Stephen Crane's manifest valour (the only injury our invulnerable flyboy hero sustains even in the midst of a withering firefight between three American combat helicopters and an armoured division of murderous Serbs (or Muslims, or Croats--they're not sure so we're not either), save for a flesh wound to the shoulder), the great irony of stranded Navy Navigator Burnett's (Owen Wilson) red badge of courage is that it's acquired when he ejects from his own downed aircraft.
It's telling that Moore takes a long moment to zoom in on a giant "Made in America" decorating the nose of the demolished F-18. Telling not for its Strangelove-ian irony, but because of its apparent lack thereof. See, Burnett's courage is American-made as well, bred into him by his nationality and rather than the product of battlefield introspection. When it comes time for Burnett to be saved in the nick of time by a passing truck, can it be any doubt that the driver is an Elvis impersonator, that the radio is blaring Dion and the Belmonts, that the militia kid sitting in the bed sports an Ice Cube T-shirt, and that he has a nice cool Coca-Cola for Burnett to quaff? Everything American is good in the world of Behind Enemy Lines, and I can frankly think of no better time for a jingoistic bit of bombastic propaganda to hit the cineplexes than in the same week that American ground troops are deployed to Afghanistan. Considering the fact that Behind Enemy Lines is one of the few films to have actually had its opening date pushed forward following our declaration of war, I'm not the only person able to spot an opportunity.
All Burnett wants to do is see a little action. He's the prototypical Henry Fleming: hot for the fight but greener than the grass on the other side of the demilitarized zone. Unlike Fleming, however, Burnett takes to the horrors of war (even crawling beneath a corpse in a mass grave with nary a grimace) like a duck to unquiet water. An interminable first act aboard an aircraft carrier showcases Burnett's homespun charm and ersatz sense of humour, elements both that make Owen Wilson one of Hollywood's most interesting young actors, yet that also make him a puzzling choice for Burnett, who is asked only to trek magically untouched through enemy territory in broad daylight with the mad indifference of Duvall's Kilgore. On a routine surveillance mission, Burnett and his equally itchy pilot "Smoke" (Gabriel Macht) take a detour, photograph something that they shouldn't have (shades of Enemy of the State), and get shot down in an admittedly thrilling evade-and-crash sequence. Once on the ground, Burnett's plight--obviously based on real-life Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady's 1995 ordeal (behind enemy lines, natch)--consists mostly of a lot of fleeing, gimmick shots, and a few awkward radio conversations with crusty Admiral Leslie Reigart (an embarrassed and stammering Hackman, career firsts for him as far as I can tell) who gains or loses a star on his collar every other scene.
As far as continuity errors go, Behind Enemy Lines sets new lows. Burnett rushes through a snowy forest with an evil sniper/tracker (Vladimir Mashkov) in hot pursuit in one scene, and then finds himself running to safety across a long concrete bridge with no transition between and no forest falling behind. Even more amazing is Burnett's magical teleportation from a precarious perch on a steep slope pinned down by vicious sniper fire immediately to a Byronic pose on the top of a mountain. Shameless and senseless--if you can explain how Burnett knows the exact location of an important homing beacon in the last ten minutes, you'll probably appreciate the symbolism of the bad guys blowing a hole in the heart of a giant winged seraphim. It's all more than a little obvious, a red, white, and blue pastiche of Forties war films set to an amped-up techno beat--maybe just what the masses demand on the eve of our next great conflagration. Originally published: November 30, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Behind Enemy Lines comes to us on DVD in a stellar presentation from Fox Video. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has a sheen to it normally reserved for Jerry Bruckheimer productions, with the absolute clarity of the image compromised only during scenes that take place inside the radar room, which are awash in detail-flattening blue. (To be fair, such is an accurate representation of the bowels of an aircraft carrier.) The film's aggro 5.1 soundmix is offered in a choice of DTS and Dolby Digital; bass is tighter and effects less localized with the former, and for some reason the second half of Behind Enemy Lines packs a stronger LFE wallop than the first in Dolby Digital.
Extras include a six-minute behind-the-scenes featurette whose highlight is star Wilson suiting up for a pre-production supersonic flight; seven deleted or extended scenes--among them odd alternate opening and closing title sequences--with optional commentary from director Moore and editor Paul Martin Smith--these trims carry a viewer discretion warning, for they would've threatened the film's PG-13 rating; a fantastic, largely CGI pre-visualization (with, again, optional Moore/Smith commentary) of the virtuoso ejection set piece that at times gives Final Fantasy a run for its money; the teaser trailer for Spielberg's upcoming Minority Report; and two engrossing full-length commentaries, one by Moore and Smith, the other producer John Davis and executive producer Wyck Godfrey. The main topics of conversation are Behind Enemy Lines' place in the post-9/11 landscape and Moore's learning of the ropes, how his ambition was tempered by time and budget limitations. Originally published: March 26, 2002.