A young maverick, working for a government institution, goes on an unauthorized mission and gets caught in enemy territory. His smart, straight-talking mentor defies his own superiors and mounts a rescue attempt, using everything from the news media to military hardware to achieve his goal.
Wait a minute. Didn't this movie come out last week?
"Behind Enemy Lines" does, indeed, have a lot in common with "Spy Game," the other film with that plot to be released this month. The similarities are mostly superficial, however. While "Spy Game" is a cerebral, flashback-heavy film from veteran director Tony Scott, "Behind Enemy Lines" is a noisy action movie directed by John Moore, a guy whose most notable previous achievement is a Sega video game commercial.
In this case, that actually ends up being a good thing. Set in Bosnia near the end of the civil war, "Behind Enemy Lines" kicks into high gear fairly early on, when Navy flight navigator Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) gets shot down while doing an unplanned recon. His camera has photographed the graves used to bury massacred civilians, and a local Serb officer sends a sniper (Vladimir Mashkov) to hunt Burnett down and keep the story from getting out.
Meanwhile, Burnett's commanding officer, Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), finds his hands tied by NATO leaders, who are afraid of jeopardizing the peace process by upsetting Serb forces with a dramatic rescue effort. In the end, both men have to do things their own way, despite the enormous risks.
The most interesting aspect of "Behind Enemy Lines" is the contrast between the very different attitudes of Burnett and Reigart. Burnett wants the excitement of combat, and boredom with assignments has led him to consider ending his Navy career. His jaded outlook frustrates Reigart, an old-school soldier who knows how quickly things can go from dull to deadly. Reigart sees potential in the younger man, but thinks it's being wasted on someone who doesn't appreciate the importance of his "boring" job. When Burnett is finally thrust into a dangerous situation, Reigart wonders if he can handle it, and Burnett himself has to learn what he's truly capable of doing.
Hackman could play somebody like Reigart in his sleep, but it's nice that he doesn't. As usual, he gives a thoughtful and sympathetic performance, adding layers to his character that aren't necessarily in Zak Penn and David Veloz's script. Reigart may be a hard-ass, but he has moments of worry and self-doubt that make him respectably human, and Hackman gets this across with subtle ease.
Wilson is better known as a comedic actor, in movies like "Meet the Parents" and "Zoolander," but he makes a surprisingly good everyman hero. His sarcastic dialogue (much of it apparently improvised) adds a cynical touch to the movie's first half hour or so, making later segments more palatable as they veer into melodrama. Wilson has quite a job to do, balancing humor, drama and action, and he carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders very well. This is the sort of thing that could finally make him a real star.
Moore's hyper, MTV-influenced directing style provides some rousing scenes, and he effectively uses techniques like zooms and jump cuts to convey the insanity of life in a war zone. He also captures the tragedy of a once-thriving nation reduced to bloody ruins, setting scenes in bombed-out shopping centers and making the scarred statue of an angel the visual centerpiece of the film.
Unfortunately, he can't resist a lot of action-movie clich most notably Burnett's remarkable resistance to physical injury the only time a bullet actually hits him is when the shooter is about six inches away. The movie's take on international politics is simplistic at best (the Serb soldiers may as well be wearing SS uniforms), and the final sequence is so over-the-top that it's funny when it should be exciting.
As blow-stuff-up movies go, though, "Behind Enemy Lines" is reasonably intelligent and paced, appropriately enough, like a commercial for a video game. It may look and sound like any number of other movies, but at least it's entertaining in its lack of originality.