Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson star in an old-fashioned, jingoistic action flick
Laid-back Owen Wilson might seem too much the surfer dude to play the navy-airman protagonist of a wartime thriller. But Behind Enemy Lines shows that he’s up to the task, especially when he’s got Gene Hackman for a gruffly paternal foil and a non-stop succession of pell-mell action sequences to gallop through.
Director John Moore, reportedly a graduate of commercials for video games, has given the film the crackling pace and sensational action of a top-notch B-movie from the post-World War II era. But the setting is more contemporary than that—Wilson is downed in a no-fly zone during the fighting in Bosnia, circa 1993, and Hackman is the aircraft carrier commander who’s trying to rescue him without creating too much of an international incident.
The Bosnian conflict is little more than a spectacularly gruesome and suspenseful backdrop for a generic chase-and-rescue tale here. As one of the Hollywood war films whose future was put into temporary doubt by the events of Sept. 11, it tempers its grandstanding arrogance with occasional small nods to historical realism but never really pretends to be anything other than a straight-ahead action flick.
It’s the sort of thing that James Cagney and Pat O’Brien might have been assigned in the old days at Warner Brothers. Hackman is solid and steady in a Pat O’Brien role for the age of CNN, and Wilson is agreeable as a Cagney for the age of MTV and the Shopping Channel. But now the B-movie plot is also tricked out in the flashy A-movie technology of steadicams and digital FX.
Moore’s presentation of the Bosnian war plays the rock-'n'-roll combat of Top Gun types off against the genocidal atrocities of actual history, but Behind Enemy Lines loves its action sequences too much to permit even token competition with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now on matters of the “heart of darkness.” And like many another war movie, it loves its hardware—the technologies of war-making and movie-making alike.
The realest thing in it might be Vladimir Mashkov, who plays a seemingly omnipresent Serbian tracker who wears a jogging suit and carries an automatic rifle. Mashkov’s dark gaze could make both of the American stars seem frivolous by comparison, but Moore’s film has him tucked away in an easily consumable genre role—the killing machine who might also be the thing that wouldn’t die.