Holiday Movie Month: "Behind Enemy Lines" Review

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Owen Wilson stars as Lt. Chris Burnett, a naval aviator aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson who's frustrated with the strict "hands-off" political policies that prevent him from experiencing combat against hostile Bosnian forces in his F/A-18 Superhornet jet. Burnett's commander, Admiral Reigert (Gene Hackman), thinks that the brash pilot doesn't have what it takes to be in the millitary, but the eager young officer soon gets the chance to prove his mettle.

Holiday Movie Month: "Behind Enemy Lines" Review

Rating: PG-13 (war violence and some language)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: November 30, 2001
Directed by: John Moore
Genre: Action/War/Drama

Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is a navigator in the Navy who is good buddies with pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) in the same way that Goose and Maverick were best buds in "Top Gun." In the case of "Behind Enemy Lines," Burnett is more like Maverick—talented but cocky and always getting into trouble. One day, Admiral Leslie McMahon Reigart (Gene Hackman) has had enough, and after an ill-advised stunt, he sends Burnett and Stackhouse on a dangerous mission to get digital photos of the site of a suspected mass grave in Bosnia.

Things go horribly awry during this mission, and their plane is shot down, forcing them to eject from the cockpit. They both survive the ejection, leaving Stackhouse as a prisoner and Burnett wandering the countryside trying to get to a safe haven to be rescued. Normally, a pilot and his navigator would quickly get rescued by the military, but a fresh set of accords has been put in place to try and keep the peace in the war-torn area. NATO Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almedia) won't allow Reigart or any other troops to rescue the men because he is afraid it will violate the accords, causing the war to begin anew.

That leaves Burnett to his own devices and Reigart desperately trying to find a way to help him without breaking any rules or running afoul of Piquet. He can see Burnett via satellite imagery and other technology and uses his wiles to come up with a plan to help the navigator, who is ill equipped to deal with local army leader Lokar (Olek Krupa) or his assassins. One assassin in particular, Sasha (Vladimir Mashkov), is assigned by Lokar to hunt Burnett down before he can get any pictures he has back to Reigart. It turns out that illegal troop movements are being conducted in the area in violation of the accords, and if proof of that gets into NATO or allied hands, it could prove disastrous for Lokar. This ups the stakes considerably and will make it that much harder for Burnett to find a way back home in one piece.

"Behind Enemy Lines" was originally slated for a January 2002 release but was moved up to November 2001 in order to take advantage of the renewed patriotism of post-9/11 America. The earlier release worked, since the film earned good box-office receipts and introduced audiences to Owen Wilson as a dramatic actor. He had mostly been in smaller supporting roles in comedies before this, and even in the dramas he was in, he often provided the comic relief in the film. Here, he is serious just about the entire time, spending the vast majority of the film running for his life in a series of pulse-pounding action and chase scenes. Costar Hackman may be better known than Wilson, and certainly better known for his dramatic chops, but this is Wilson's film through and through, and he carries it on his shoulders well.

Director John Moore picked a very ambitious film for his feature directorial debut, but he manages to pull it off. He had previously directed a couple of short films and lots of television commercials, which wouldn't seem to lend itself to action film directing on paper. However, the sometimes dizzying montage-like cuts of some commercials actually prepared him well for the action sequences. Viewers who pay close attention can see early versions of what would later become his signature style in this film. Those who have seen his later films such as "Max Payne" and "A Good Day to Die Hard" can see the influence that has stayed with the director since "Behind Enemy Lines." He clearly did a lot of editing to make those action sequences just right, and the reward is that they are very exciting and keep viewers engaged in the story.

Besides the heavily edited action scenes, the other ambitious thing about "Behind Enemy Lines" is that it has two protagonists, each of whom has his own antagonist to get past. Hackman has the NATO Admiral to contend with, while Wilson has to fight Lokar and his assassins. In some films, this tactic can draw too much attention away from the main storyline, but in "Behind Enemy Lines," it works. Having multiple heroes and enemies is a good way to not have to stretch the plot too thin while still giving plenty of time for action and chases, which are the film's bread and butter. This is an action film for thinkers, though it still serves as good popcorn entertainment as well.

Rating: 3 out of 5