Behind Enemy Lines is a glorified chase-and-rescue war movie that compensates for its clich-wallowing tendencies with a blend of supercool spectacle and eye-popping attention to rapidly expanding minutiae.
Owen Wilson is properly cast as Lieutenant Chris Burnett, a standard-issue naval aviator shot down in war-ravaged Bosnia after he and his pilot overstep their mission's boundaries for a digital photo recon. Burnett has two weeks of service left to give his country before he's shot down and becomes a disposable ground pawn due to a fragile NATO peace deal that's been brokered.
By now the narrative device of setting a drama on the last days, or weeks, of a protagonist's duty of service has become a worn-out crutch that screenwriters employ like sugar in their coffee. Even in Robert Redford's new movie Spy Game, the action is culled on Redford's last day with the CIA. There should be a 10-year moratorium on this device so audiences can get a rest; the clich has been used so much that it carries a negative weight. Nobody cares if a character is on the way out of his job when a bunch of bad stuff happens -- so what? It's merely a signal of more inept clichs to come.
Back to the story. Burnett radios to his commanding officer Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) to get his pickup location, not knowing that the NATO brass are throwing him to the dogs. An assassin is assigned to track and kill Burnett, while Reigart is forced to send the foot-fleeing navigator in a giant circle leading right back to where he landed by parachute. In the interim, Burnett dodges so many bullets and land mine trip wires that any hope for suspension of disbelief is completely lost.
But that's not to say that Behind Enemy Lines isn't entertaining, even in the muck and mire of its guffaw-inducing use of clichs. But it's absolutely in spite of its hackneyed formulas that the movie succeeds with its war romp design. Director John Moore surrounds his subjects with 360-degree camera angle coverage that creates a uniquely cinematic tension. He switches to hand-held, documentary-style verit when Burnett arrives in an embattled town, and uses graceful-direct overhead shots to reveal aspects of the story without overstating the ideas. When the pilots are forced to eject from their $40 million jet, we see the time-warping blur of dials that the pilots see, and then the rapid-fire inner mechanisms of the aircraft switching and releasing to discharge the pilots. You can feel gravity playing games with the pilots like a lion batting a mouse.
By constantly executing flourishes of cinematic wizardry, Moore makes Behind Enemy Lines a series of magic tricks. Doubtlessly, the screenwriters (there are four of them) are to blame for shooting too many missed bullets at Burnett. But Moore has a modern visual sensibility that triumphs over the narrative limitations and is aided by solid performances by Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson. Behind Enemy Lines is a significant bellwether of war movies yet to come. We just need to lose the bulletproof heroes and sequenced explosive gymnastics.