As steel-toed, tin-eared, flat-footed, jingoistic military thrillers go, Behind Enemy Lines marches in formation, clomping down familiar roads: When a Midwesternly blond American Navy pilot (Owen Wilson) strays during a photographic reconnaissance mission over an anarchic Balkan country, he’s shot down by Serbian villains so sullen and world-weary that they drag on cigarettes even while firing surface-to-air missiles. As he awaits rescue by his Navy brothers, Lieut. Chris Burnett must run for his life to elude his cold-blooded pursuers, among them a tracker so inured to pleas for compassion that he smokes even while shooting a man in the head. (Somewhere in a parallel universe, entertainment magazine editors are buzzing because popular, prolific Russian actor-director Vladimir Mashkov costars as said nearly mute hitman in a Hollywood movie with the dude from Shanghai Noon!)
There are, however, some snafus to the successful deliverance of one stranded American in a perpetually gray land not his own: Naive international types say the aviator had been unlawfully spying in a restricted fly zone—he photographed something incriminating that he wasn’t meant to see—and a NATO bigwig doesn’t want to further aggravate the locals by violating the peace treaty meant to keep warring, smoking men from killing one another. The pilot’s commander, Adm. Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), is thus torn between behaving diplomatically—by inference, spinelessly—as a cooperative peacekeeping partner, and behaving heroically as a nuts-to-you American individualist courageous enough to rescue his boy no matter what the damage to NATO, to prospects for peace, or to his military career.
The clock ticks towards a showdown involving a giant hilltop statue of an angel with a shot-off face and wing, a daredevil U.S. Marine dangling on a rope from a helicopter, and an attitudinal clash never anticipated by the studio: What might have been enjoyed—or at least understood—three months ago as a dumb but harmless thriller about clever American soldiers who decisively triumph over murderous, difficult-to-fathom Balkan squabblers with tar in their lungs and revenge on their minds now feels particularly boobish and trivial in a homeland enrolled in a crash course on internecine tribal warfare. Although the movie probably never had any intention of being taken seriously—for Pete’s sake, the dude from Zoolander plays the kind of role in which Nicolas Cage usually glowers and flexes—the genre’s throwaway triviality feels all the more wasteful with daily headlines fixed on miseries in difficult-to-fathom Afghanistan.
The enemies in Behind Enemy Lines are recognizable by their crappy Slavic nylon track jackets, their slouching Slavic posture, and the subtitles on screen whenever they talk their ruthless Slavic talk; these foreign foes might just as well have been represented by helium balloons tied to sticks, for all their humanity. ”Give me a fight I can understand,” Lieutenant Burnett challenges, shortly before his ill-fated recon mission. But this strenuous feature debut by Irish-born commercial director John Moore (who previously won advertising wars for Adidas, Guinness, and SEGA), isn’t really excited about analyzing the battle—or the stakes, either. He and his producers are far more jazzed by the visual kick of exploding land mines, cocky flight maneuvers, and easy-to-read signifiers of American cultural dominance. (The Muslim resistance fighters who give Burnett a ride in their rickety truck include a guy dressed like late-era Elvis and a teenager whose T-shirt bears the face of the rapper Ice Cube.)
Wilson is, as always, an endearing performer—better his fetching grins than, say, Vin Diesel’s action-figure grimaces any day—but Wilson is also, by temperament, a persona whose natural gait is an amble, not a sprint. Soaking in a tub in Shanghai Noon or even shaking with fear in The Haunting, he charms with a stoner’s laconic calm, the same geniality that made him so effectively creepy as a serial killer in The Minus Man. Hustling, by contrast, doesn’t come naturally to him, and many of the actor’s responses feel overly thought-through (or worse, overly discussed with Moore while the makeup department supplied him with artful smears of blood and dirt).
Left to his own devices, meanwhile, Hackman—even Hackman, who is so gifted at portraying men whose commitment to good or evil can never be taken for granted—runs his character by the numbers. ”Life is tough! Pull yourself together! Evade and survive! We will bring you home!” Reigart snaps to Burnett over the field radio, by way of a pep talk by way of The Last of the Mohicans. ”I intend to put you in harm’s way!” he later barks to the troops about to go in for the pyrotechnical finale. We, the people, are meant to cheer in response, but the spirit isn’t willing. War is hell, but so is peace—at least when it comes to movies in a no-man’s-land like this one. C-