[Screen It]

(2001) (Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A cynical U.S. Navy navigator tries to make his way out from behind enemy lines after being shot down and encountering hostile enemy forces.
Lieutenant Chris Burnett (OWEN WILSON) is a flight navigator on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson that's based in the Adriatic Sea on duty overseeing the peace talks in Bosnia. A 7-year veteran, Burnett is disillusioned with the politics of modern war and has turned in his resignation notice to Admiral Leslie Reigart (GENE HACKMAN), head of the Adriatic Battle Group and commander of the Vinson.

Hoping to wile away his remaining two weeks, Burnett finds himself sent on a Christmas Day reconnaissance mission with his pilot, Stackhouse (GABRIEL MACHT). Ever the rebel, Burnett convinces his partner to veer off course over the demilitarized zone. There, they capture photographic evidence of mass graves, but end up having their plane shot from the sky and thus parachute onto foreign soil.

Not wishing their genocidal activity to be revealed, the local military commander, Lokar (OLEK KRUPA), orders his men, and in particular, the Tracker (VLADIMIR MASHKOV), to find and dispense with their newfound problem. From that point on, Burnett tries to elude the hostile enemy forces and make his way to a pickup point, all while Reigart, Master Chief Tom O'Malley (DAVID KEITH) and marine Rodway (CHARLES MALIK WHITFIELD) deal with orders from Admiral Piquet (JOAQUIM DE ALMEIDA) of NATO Naval Command to cease all rescue operations.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Back before the events of September 11, 2001, patriotism and popular opinion of the U.S. military followed an up and down course similar to that traveled by a yo-yo. One moment that briefly buoyed it was the captivating tale of Scott O'Grady, a U.S. pilot shot down over Bosnia in June 1995 who survived on his own, avoiding detection for six days before being rescued.

Seemingly inspired by those real life events - at least in spirit - and have the fortuitous luck of arriving in a patriotic U.S. movie market, the filmmakers of "Behind Enemy Lines" would seem to have a potential hit on their hands. After all, the current and near collective rah-rah mood would seem to be conducive for such a film, and if it managed to capture some elements of the O'Grady story, it could have the potential to be an engaging and exciting cinematic experience.

Unfortunately, first-time director John Moore (making his feature film debut after helming TV commercials) has fallen prey to the "Look what I can do now that I'm a movie director with a big budget" syndrome. Like many of his contemporaries who've graduated from short form entertainment to feature length efforts, Moore doesn't entirely seem to understand the difference between what it takes to make a commercial work vs. the same for a full-length film.

Accordingly, the novice isn't content with allowing the material to stand on it own and apparently feels the need to jack it up with all sorts of fancy visual effects, camera moves and tricks, and a blaring rock soundtrack. By utilizing just about every trick of the trade, Moore apparently seems to be following the mantra of the Big Bad Wolf in saying, "All the better to entice young male viewers with."

The result is a picture that may play well to the less discerning members of that target audience and there's no denying that it contains some decently staged and filmed action sequences that will no doubt come off as exciting to them and others. Yet, at the same time, most of the effort feels fragmented and episodic, and can't shake the amateurishness that often rears its ugly head and mars the production.

It doesn't help that the script from screenwriters Zak Penn ("Inspector Gadget," "The Last Action Hero") and David Veloz ("Permanent Midnight," "Natural Born Killers") is filled with occasionally stilted dialogue, cardboard characters and enough contrivances and/or inane material to make even the most tolerant viewer blanch.

For instance, it's unlikely that a trained navigator would leave his injured pilot out in the open, behind enemy lines, after their plane has just been shot down. Then there's the bit where that navigator suddenly finds himself standing in a field of trip wires - all at least a foot off the ground and spaced rather close together - that he somehow managed to traverse without seeing, let alone touching them.

The real kicker is when the Admiral - apparently after watching too many episodes of "Star Trek" - pulls a Captain Kirk by personally heading up the helicopter rescue mission to save a crewmember he obviously doesn't particularly care for. All that's missing is him saying, "Spock, you have the com."

Of course, such moments and material are obviously designed as the setup for the ensuing explosive action. The unbelievable, cartoonish and/or MTV way in which it's all presented, however, prevents the film from possessing a grain of credibility, resulting in the cinematic equivalent of a military-based video game.

Speaking of cartoons, and representing one of the film's more glaring flaws, is its portrayal of its villains. Barely identified by name let alone any sort of dimensional or interesting characteristics, the various bad guys are flat, sketchily drawn and certainly not as effective as they need to be and could have been to make the film more interesting and riveting.

As what we presume is the leader of sorts, Olek Krupa ("Thirteen Days," "Blue Streak") is over the top in his villainy, while Vladimir Mashkov ("15 Minutes," "An American Rhapsody") plays "the tracker" as something of a combination of Schwarzenegger's Terminator and Tommy Lee Jones as U.S. Marshal Gerard, but without the persona that made both of them fun to behold.

Faring a bit better, but probably marking one of the most disappointing efforts of his long career, is Gene Hackman ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Heist") as the Admiral. Saddled with bad dialogue, contrivances and a character that's neither well drawn nor compelling, one of the finest actors working today feels like he's phoning in his part. Supporting performances from the likes of Gabriel Macht ("American Outlaws," "Simply Irresistible"), Joaquim De Almeida ("The Mask of Zorro," "Clear and Present Danger") and David Keith ("Men of Honor," "U-571") are decent, but ultimately unremarkable.

All of which leaves Owen Wilson ("Zoolander," "Meet the Parents") to carry the film, particularly since he's onscreen most of the time. While I've enjoyed him and his performances playing various characters over the years, my initial reaction to seeing him in this part was that he was miscast. After watching the film, I have to stick with that thought, although he's not as bad as I feared.

While appropriately cynical, vulnerable and likable in a shaggy dog type of way, and playing an "everyman" sort of hero (as compared with the stereotypical roles the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis have played over the years), neither the character nor Wilson's performance worked that well for me. Others may have a different opinion, but if you don't buy into the role or performance, the film simply doesn't work that well (especially when coupled with the other problems).

All of that said, if one can completely suspend any and all sorts of higher cranial activity for the film's duration, then they might not have similar reactions to and/or problems with the character/performance and the rest of the film. That's particularly true in some of the action scenes that are rather riveting including an effective sequence featuring the efforts of a jet to elude surface to air missiles closing in on it.

Moderately engaging every so often but stymied by an overzealous, novice director and his big bag of visual effects and tricks, a slipshod script, and predictable and occasionally borrowed material, the film might play well in today's patriotic market, but clearly isn't as good as it might have been had more experienced hands been guiding it. "Behind Enemy Lines" rates as 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 2001 / Posted November 30, 2001

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