Flaming Wreck

Owen Wilson goes down Behind Enemy Lines and lands in familiar terrain

Nov 28, 2001 at 4:00 am
Though Behind Enemy Lines, set in Bosnia, was originally due for release next year, already it feels antiquated; that conflict is a distant memory, a ghost lost in the shadow of the war on terrorism. The film tested so well that 20th Century Fox pushed up its release date, and it's hardly surprising: We're engaged in a battle with no obvious resolution, and audiences will happily lap up a story with a sense of purpose and a clean, clear-cut conclusion. Behind Enemy Lines, about a soldier itching for a fight until he lands in one, provides the very closure today's headlines warn against; it has a blond good guy evading and eventually defeating dark-haired baddies who look like caricatures lifted from the pages of Tom Clancy. The film desperately wants to play like Three Kings, a war film with a guilty conscience, but it's too pat and familiar to earn its high-minded stripes. Rather, it's merely a film in which Owen Wilson dances between bullets and missiles while waiting for Gene Hackman, his grizzled but loving father figure, to swoop from the sky and save his ass.

Wilson, as Lt. Chris "Longhorn" Burnett, is a bored naval navigator biding his time on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, a carrier stationed in the Adriatic Sea; he's bored and cynical, waiting for a war that's winding down -- a battle he insists he doesn't understand. (Though we're never told when the film is set, it takes place while the U.N. is brokering something called the "Cincinnati peace treaty," perhaps a veiled reference to the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.) Burnett figures he's just a cop walking a beat no one cares about, and Wilson plays him pitch-perfect -- as a restless smart-ass, a young man only playing the role of gruff and weary veteran. "Everybody thinks they're gonna get the chance to punch a Nazi in the face at Normandy," he whines to his pilot, Lt. Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). "Those days are long over." Burnett has given Adm. Reigart (Hackman), the quintessential military man whose by-the-book bluster masks soft-hearted mush, his letter of resignation, due to take effect in two weeks. After that, he figures, he'll go fly Britney Spears around in her private plane.

While on a holiday mission, he finally gets his shot at playing soldier when a reconnaissance mission is horribly botched: Burnett and Stackhouse spy Serb soldiers up to no good, and when they go in to snap digital pics, they're brought down by pesky, relentless missiles. (Behind Enemy Lines, with its myriad digital and animated and miniature effects, isn't deficient in the dazzle department; it plays like a virtual-reality version of Microsoft's Combat Flight Simulator.) Though Stackhouse is executed by uniformed Serb soldiers, the U.N., as represented by Adm. Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), is loath to send in rescue troops; to do so would risk destruction of the tenuous cease-fire. Why, Piquet wonders, would he risk thousands of lives for one U.S. soldier? "Americans," he snorts. "All you care about is your damned pilots."

And so Burnett is left to gambol through the bombed-out forests and factories, dodging bullets and mortars and land mines like an armed-forces X-Man; the wannabe soldier, in an instant, is transformed into James Bond and Indiana Jones, an indestructible superhero in olive drab. The laconic star of Bottle Rocket and Meet the Parents, surprisingly, makes for a genial action figure -- indeed, it's his down-home affability that keeps the film from sinking into the cliché quagmire -- but the film's politics, such as they are, and its razzle-dazzle effects (we see, for instance, the rippling effects of a bomb the precise moment it's detonated -- a pale facsimile of Three Kings' bullet-cam gag) are mere distractions. They serve as gimmicks meant to divert our attention from the fact it's just a cat-and-mouse movie without substance or surprise.

Throughout the film, Burnett is being followed by a superchic sniper (Vladimir Mashkov, referred to in the credits solely as "Tracker") decked out in a Clooney 'do and a warm-up jacket: Been there, done that already this year in the furious, flawed Enemy at the Gates, which at least had Ed Harris going for it. The film's final third is so hyperbolic it's laughable; once more, a novice director (commercial maker John Moore) retraces John Woo's signature like an emotionless forger. (And perhaps the Three Kings comparisons aren't so accidental: A Bosnian kid who aids Burnett sports an Ice Cube T-shirt.)

At some point during the filming of Behind Enemy Lines, surely Hackman had to feel as though he was retracing old footsteps in military-issue combat boots. The actor's been here before, one way or another: In 1983's Uncommon Valor, he was a colonel leading a ragtag bunch of vets through the Vietnam jungles, in search of a son gone missing in action; five years later, in Bat*21, it was he who was shot down and stranded in 'Nam, awaiting a rescue that felt as though it would never arrive. Behind Enemy Lines, then, merges the two and then some. But remaking his own films has become de rigueur for Hackman; what, after all, was 1998's Enemy of the State if not a veiled "sequel" to Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 The Conversation? Then, Behind Enemy Lines has the smell of last week's leftovers all over it.