What did we learn from "Saving Private Ryan?" We learned that honesty in portraying combat is crucial to earning audience respect. We learned that well-rounded characters who have an honest fear of death is what is needed for the audience to fully engage the action onscreen. And we learned that you don't need that much modern technology to successfully portray warfare. "Behind Enemy Lines" (IMDb listing) is the new war film that acts as an antithesis to all that was accomplished in Spielberg's combat classic. And to put it bluntly, it stinks.
Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is a brash, cocky fighter pilot stuck running routine flights around Bosnia, not ever being allowed to engage the enemy. When sent on a reconnaissance mission during the holidays by his stern commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), Burnett ventures behind enemy lines to get a better look at what the bad guys (Olek Krupa and Vladamir Maskov) are up to. He is promptly sighted by an enemy missile and shot down, far from safety. Now on a mission to save his own life, Burnett must avoid hazards coming at him from all sides as he tries to make his way to a rendezvous point where Reigart can come and get him out of danger.
There are many reasons why "Behind Enemy Lines" is so insufferable. An easy start would be to place most of the blame on debuting director John Moore. A veteran of music videos and commercials (gee, what a surprise), Moore doesn't appear to have a filmmaking bone in his body. He is a technician, along the lines of Michael Bay, only interested in the next cool shot or the next chance to move his camera. It's frustrating to watch Moore's film, as it is a work of pure folly. Every new moment is worse then the last.
Though not based on fact, "Behind Enemy Lines" has moments of reality interspersed throughout. I'm convinced Moore was looking for a little credibility with this debut, but the episodes that could possibly be construed as "real life" battle moments are quickly pissed away by his need to use heaps and heaps of special effects to sell this lukewarm tale of survival. It's like a Gap commercial gone to war. Honestly, how seriously can you take a film that has the celebrated comic actor Owen Wilson sliding across the mud or ice with guns blazing in super-slo-mo? Or the liberal use of "bullet-time" that Moore implements to sell the explosions? It came to a point in the film where, if Wilson was to bend back, Neo-style, to dodge bullets (or tanks, or missiles, or everything else he isn't magically hurt by), I wouldn't have flinched. Moore has shaped the film as if I should have a Playstation 2 controller in my hand. He is making a video game, not a film. And why he would want to abuse cinema like this really disturbs me.
Some blame should also lie on the painfully miscast Owen Wilson. A skilled actor ("The Minus Man," "Zoolander"), and even better screenwriter ("Bottle Rocket," Rushmore"), Wilson is still hard to swallow in the role of a brassy pilot. Though he does have a security blanket in Moore's ostentatious visual sense, there are still enough scenes left in the weary picture where Owen must rely on his inner-self to make it through the material. However, without a spine to the film, he fails miserably.
Co-star Gene Hackman is obviously making house payments with this role. It only asks of him to stand in a control room looking concerned. This mighty actor has seen better days, and better scripts for that matter. He looks bored and constipated with the weak motivations he is given by the screenplay. Hackman also has to anchor the more flag-waving angles of the film, as he is a commander who will stop at nothing to get his man back home. It's just a shame that the filmmakers make Hackman look more idiotic than patriotic.
"Behind Enemy Lines" is contemptible entertainment that makes a mockery out of war and those who choose to fight in it. The lesson to be learned here is that you don't need all the visual extravagance to tell a story. The film world only needs one Michael Bay, thank you very much. John Moore is not welcome back behind the camera anytime soon.
Filmfodder Grade: F