16 December 2010

Retro Review: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)


B+

Behind Enemy Lines
2001, 106mins, 15
Director: John Moore
Writer (s): Zak Penn, Jim Thomas, John Thomas, David Veloz
Cast includes: Gene Hackman, Owen Wilson, Gabriel Macht, Olek Krupa, Vladimir Maskov
UK Release Date: 4th January 2002

John Moore’s “Behind Enemy Lines” is more or less a completely forgotten cinematic quantity these days, the 2001 actioner having been thrown into genre limbo some years back. That’s a pity. With a sturdy cast and some stylishly executed set pieces at its disposal the film is actually a minor joy, goofy at times for sure, but filled with gusto and even a sense of real emotional sincerity when it comes to depicting the war crimes which occurred in Bosnia during the 90s. It’s certainly worthier than its non-existent legacy suggests.

Fighter pilot Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) has decided to bring his time in the military to a close, frustrated by the lack of action he’s been receiving. This news isn’t well received by Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), a superior who views Chris’s choice as a supreme waste of talent. In a fit of bitterness Reigart assigns Chris and his co-pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) to the undesirable Christmas Eve shift, the pair forced to tool up and perform some photographic recon over Bosnia. After their camera snaps some elicit sights when moving over a supposed no fly zone, the duo are shot done by a mob of angered Serbs. Stackhouse is promptly executed, with Burnett forced to go on the run, too deep in enemy territory for a simple retrieval. As a result he is informed that he must reach a safe zone for extraction, a guilt ridden Reigart spearheading the mission. However the Serbs aren’t willing to let Burnett escape so easily, an assassin (Vladimir Maskov) being sent to dispatch the stranded soldier, and ensure that he never makes it back home.

Owen Wilson is surprisingly well cast in “Behind Enemy Lines”, the laid-back comic convincing nicely as an isolated man on the run. Wilson’s inherent likability serves wonders in keeping the audience onboard with Burnett’s struggle, but the performer also delves deep into his own dramatic pockets and produces some startlingly astute goods. Wilson captures the character’s desperation perfectly, and creates an undertone of simmering regret concerning his deceased colleague. There’s an edge to his portrayal that viewers won’t expect, and it ultimately makes me a little upset that Wilson hasn’t attacked more material akin to this over the last decade. Gene Hackman is predictably dependable as Reigart, forging a decent vocal relationship with Wilson over the course of the movie. He’s hardly stretching himself, but Hackman still brings a subtle hint of remorse and enough humanity to make the role work. The villains are all painted in a somewhat faceless fashion, although Vladimir Maskov still oozes threat as the ghost like killer tailing Burnett through the frosty wilderness.

The musical score courtesy of Don Davis is intrusive at times, but during other moments it sustains a level of necessary pomp and vigour. “Behind Enemy Lines” certainly isn’t a subtle picture in its design, but then again John Moore could never be accused of being a subtle filmmaker. The project is positively brimming with fast cuts and aggressive action, the director deploying his speedy editing techniques and deft touch for onscreen chaos very effectively. Moore is undoubtedly a talented hired hand, his eye for slick production design and atmospheric visuals virtually faultless. Moore’s technical skill is complimented by a screenplay with more heart than most, the writers bringing a believable soul to the characters and a sense of stern seriousness concerning the abominable genocides seen onscreen. “Behind Enemy Lines” may be chocked with multiplex thrills and spills, but during its quieter and more tentative moments it acts as an oddly acceptable reflection on the darker side of war.

At 106 minutes “Behind Enemy Lines” is agreeably paced, finding a rather naturalistic route to its overblown climax. The action sequences are all accomplished, one in particular involving multiple tripwires providing as much nail biting tension as it does fire and debris. The aforementioned conclusion is over the top in every conceivable fashion, abandoning logic in favour of some good old fashioned American heroics and booming musical overtones. At this point “Behind Enemy Lines” perhaps becomes a little tough to swallow, especially for those dubious about the real world accuracy of the scene in question.

I have more time for this picture than most, but that’s simply because it’s an underrated and cruelly disregarded flick. The denouement may leave a slightly sour taste in the mouth, but until that juncture “Behind Enemy Lines” is a pretty darn gratifying slice of action cinema. It’s certainly worth tracking down for home entertainment consumption, now nearly 10-years after the fact.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

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