Hide in plain sight
Owen Wilson is not your typical action hero. He has a cartoon-like crooked nose, slight stoner drawl and subversive geniality that have been used with memorable effect in several comedies (Bottle Rocket, Shanghai Noon, Meet the Parents, Zoolander). He hardly seems likely to pry marquee action roles away from the likes of a buff Nicolas Cage, snarling Vin Diesel, or even somnambulant Keanu Reeves. Yet here he is as a sort of modern Everyman on the run in Behind Enemy Lines, a typical Hollywood war movie that feels like a graduate of the Michael Bay (The Rock, Armageddon) school of garish visual and sound effects.
Wilson is a current flavor of the month (he also co-stars in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums this Christmas) who is out of his element but not his league here. Cast one of the aforementioned actors in the film and it becomes a ham-fisted geo-political howler. Cast a Stallone or Schwarzenegger beefcake and it becomes yet another bloodbath with larger-than-life heroes. With Wilson on board, the film settles comfortably into the saddle of blatant escapism with an attitude. It’s a preposterous, brisk manhunt draped but not mired in today’s headlines. It is flawed, often-breathless entertainment anchored to the confusion, complexities and horrors of current armed and ethnic conflicts.
Navy jet navigator Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Wilson) is stationed aboard an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic Sea. He is bored with military routine and weary of the murky line between ever-changing allies and enemies. “Give me a fight I can understand,” he tells his superior, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), before flying a Christmas Day reconnaissance mission over the Balkans. “I certainly didn’t want to be a cop in a neighborhood nobody cares about.” He should be more careful about what he wishes.
Burnett and his pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) trespass into a no-fly zone and digitally photograph a paramilitary presence at a mass gravesite and possible illegal troop movements. Their F/A-18 Superhornet is then shot down by Serb heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. Burnett survives the crash, and his fight is now crystal clear: he must evade a horde of soldiers and an assassin tracker (15 Minutes wacko Vladimir Maskov) commanded by rogue military leader Lokar (Olek Krupa) or be murdered.
Burnett makes radio contact with Admiral Reigart, but NATO Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida) vetoes a rescue attempt in hostile territory to protect a recent peace accord. It’s then up to Burnett to travel to a “safe” area to be picked up while Reigart stews about his orders to wait in the wings as director John Moore heightens the action with freeze frames, shutter speeds, slow motion and hand-held camera effects, zooms and numerous editing tricks.
The action begins with the most exhilarating aerial combat sequence since the Rebel force X-Wings attack on the Death Star in Star Wars, with Stackhouse attempting to out-maneuver first one and then two SAM missiles. The pursuit of Burnett gets silly at times as the harried navigator scurries through frozen forests and wide open areas of land, outruns explosions in a mine field and dodges sheets of automatic weapons and tank fire without getting hit. The finale also includes foolish last-ditch heroics that ensure Stackhouse did not die in vain. In an odd sidebar, Burnett crosses paths with a group of Muslim resistance fighters, one of which emulates Elvis and another who wears an Ice Cube T-shirt and lectures Burnett on hip-hop.
Behind Enemy Lines is rated PG-13 but contains graphic battlefield violence and corpses. Like Spy Games, it is about a superior officer who has a limited time to free a compatriot from foreign enemies. It makes no reference to being inspired by the incident in which American Air Force F-16 pilot Scott O’Grady was shot down by a Serb missile over Bosnia in 1995 and evaded capture for six days before being rescued. That would be an embarrassment. This is an action-adventure fantasy, not a mirror on the real world.