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'Behind Enemy Lines'

It's hard to find the heroism

Friday, November 30, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In "Behind Enemy Lines," an American reconnaissance plane is shot down over hostile territory in Bosnia. The admiral who ordered the flight wants to mount a rescue mission but the Frenchman in charge of the NATO peacekeeping force says it would violate truce accords and possibly spark renewed fighting that could engulf the entire region.

 
 
'Behind Enemy Lines'

Rating: PG-13 for war violence and some language.

Starring: Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman.

Director: John Moore.

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars.

   
 

You don't care about that, the NATO man fumes. You just care about your own airmen. "Well, duh," exclaimed someone in the audience at the movie's preview screening.

That also pretty much sums up the film's attitude regarding the complexities of war and politics in the modern age, a topic that has lately infiltrated the gray matter of even the most oblivious American.

Aviator Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) signed up to be Top Gun, but the Navy finds itself playing Beat Cop. Missions keep getting countermanded at the last minute by the NATO commander, leaving the Navy fliers doing pushups (but stopping short of cold showers). Burnett wants to fight a war, not try to prevent one. His commanding officer, Admiral Riegart, tells him to grow up.

Instead, Burnett goes looking for trouble. On a routine reconnaissance mission, he talks his pilot, Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), into violating a no-fly zone established by the truce treaty. They see something they shouldn't, and the troops on the ground (who are determined to make sure their activities go unreported) decide to shoot down the plane and round up any survivors.

Never mind that Burnett, his testosterone overcoming his common sense, got himself into this mess. Never mind that the snooty NATO officer, Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), is right when he talks about the dangers of reigniting the Balkan tinderbox -- and you can tell from the look on Riegart's face that he knows it.

"Behind Enemy Lines" pays lip service to these and other complications. In the end, it's all about Americans sticking together and heading out to kick butt, treaties and coalitions notwithstanding. Given the current world situation, that figures to be a real crowd pleaser, at least domestically.

Director John Moore, a music-video/commercials phenom making his feature debut, adds a visceral jolt to the proceedings with several of his action scenes, particularly the sequence in which Stackhouse desperately tries to dodge the surface-to-air missiles targeting his aircraft. Seldom has the term "whiz-bang" been more apt, as plane and projectiles whoosh by each other until the ultimate crash. A later scene on the ground, when Burnett hitches a ride into a supposed safe zone that erupts into a slaughterhouse, proves equally jarring.

But at other times, Moore backslides into his best Michael Bay impersonation, employing jagged jump cuts, a camera circling wildly around the action like a hyperactive vulture and a musical score (by Don Davis) that swells up like a director's ego.

A scene in which Burnett sets off a series of trip-wired mines but somehow manages to escape unscathed (while his pursuers, who are farther away, go boom) is -- dare I say it -- overblown. Naturally, an entire squadron of soldiers firing automatic weapons somehow manages to keep missing Burnett even when he runs across open ground.

You may have read that "Behind Enemy Lines" is based on the travails of American pilot Scott O'Grady, who was in fact shot down over Bosnia and dodged hostile Serbian troops for six days before being rescued by Marine helicopters. If so, it is hardly flattering to O'Grady.

Wilson plays Burnett as a malcontent who gets shot down because he willfully disobeyed orders more out of boredom than anything else. He evades the pursuing troops largely by luck. The only thing he does that qualifies as heroic -- saving the photos that document what the bad guys were doing -- also puts his rescuers at increased risk.

Hackman's admiral is stalwart but not blustery, a commanding presence without being larger than life. But such a man would never commit the gaffe of saying Burnett's name while talking to him on his radio -- something he has just admonished Burnett for doing.

But that's typical of "Behind Enemy Lines," a movie that keeps trying to look smart but persists in shooting first and asking questions later.

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