Behind Enemy Lines (2001) Movie Review

Director John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines takes place sometime in the mid ’90s, at around the time when the different factions engaged in war within the borders of the former Yugoslavia — the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats — had all agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the United States.. NATO, under command of European commanders, were in charge of “keeping the peace” between the various factions while the ceasefire was implemented. Now that you know a brief history, let’s get on with the movie.

Behind Enemy Lines stars Owen Wilson as U.S. Navy pilot Chris Burnett, a sort of slacker in military camo who doesn’t feel as if his time guarding the airs of Yugoslavia is worthwhile. Burnett plans on leaving the Navy for a cushy job in the private sector as soon as his tour of duty is over, and has already delivered his retirement papers to his commander, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman). Things take a drastic turn when Burnett, along with fellow pilot Stackhouse, is shot down by renegade Serbian forces while the two are doing routine reconnaissance over a DMZ zone in the mountains. Apparently the duo had photographed the Serbs doing something naughty, something they don’t want exposed. Both pilots survive the crash, but Stackhouse is located by the Serbs and executed, and now Burnett is alone, cold, and on the run. Can he evade the enemy long enough to be rescued? Will there even be a rescue attempt?

If you’ve ever seen Owen Wilson, you know the man doesn’t look like the standard “hero” figure. He doesn’t have the face for it, or even the body, and he certainly exudes much more “slacker” energy than he does “hero” vibes. Even Wilson’s easygoing, Texas drawl is decidedly slackerish. And you know what? He is perfect for this role. Wilson’s Burnett is so out of his depth as he evades the hardened Serbs that it’s hilarious to see him dodge their bullets in scene after scene. It almost seems that the man survives on pure luck and frantic running and nothing else! In fact, until the very end, Burnett never once draws his sidearm to defend himself because he’s so intent on running. Is he a coward? Well, no. He’s a pilot and he wasn’t built, or trained, for ground warfare. So he runs…

Behind Enemy Lines isn’t concern about politics. Oh sure, it makes a half-hearted attempt at approaching the situation in the former Yugoslavia, but those exposition quickly fall by the wayside in favor of explosions and gunfire. And my oh my are the explosions and gunfire loud and exciting. Under the sure directorial hand of John Moore, Behind Enemy Lines is kinetic, from the early attack on Burnett’s plane to the very end, when American and Serbian forces engage in battle that involves tanks, helicopters, and lots and lots of machinegun.

Moore has a knack for keeping the movie moving, and even simple scenes like typing on a keyboard is accelerated with camera tricks so that the ordinary action of typing is suddenly exciting (hard to believe, but true). The camera rarely stands still, and Moore employs everything from freeze frames to camera POVs through spaces that no camera should be able to fit into. The film is 1 hour and 40 minutes of technical creativity.

Storywise, Behind Enemy Lines falters. There’s very little story to speak off. Pilot sees something he’s not supposed to see, gets shot down, and now pilot runs, runs, and runs. Sometimes Moore loses track of where Owen’s Burnett is supposed to be, and the character will seemingly jump from location to location without explanation. One moment Burnett will be racing through a dense wood and the next he’s on a dam somewhere. Confusing.

The movie is most exciting when Burnett is on the run (and in case you haven’t figured it out by now, Burnett is on the run a lot.) The rest of the movie consists of Hackman’s Reigart battling the powers that be to get permission to rescue his man, but constantly butting heads with regulations and politics. Hackman does a competent job and it’s obvious he realizes he’s not in anything special here.

The main villains are cookie-cutter, and a militant Serb who is responsible for Stackhouse’s death, and is the main person tracking Burnett, really comes across as hollow. The man’s name isn’t even mentioned until almost toward the end (or if it was mentioned earlier I didn’t catch it). The reasons behind the importance of the photograph that Burnett had taken are explained, but really, who cares?

Behind Enemy Lines is not a deep movie, and it’s certainly not a history lesson about the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. For a better understanding of how the people fought the war, and the absurdity of it all, I recommend the satirical No Man’s Land.

John Moore (director) / Jim Thomas, John Thomas, David Veloz, Zak Penn (screenplay)
CAST: Owen Wilson …. Lt. Chris Burnett
Gene Hackman …. Adm. Reigart
Gabriel Macht …. Stackhouse
Joaquim de Almeida …. Piquet

Buy Behind Enemy Lines on DVD