TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

. . . and just when everyone thought this thread was dead uhhhh-gain, it makes a triumphant reappearance. Well, semi-triumphant. I finally watched a war film I had been wanting to see for many a year and as it turned out, well . . . phooey on all that anticipating. It wasn’t really worth it! Oh well. It’s still a decent romp. You could do a lot worse as far as cheap-looking war movies are concerned, things that fail to succeed to even entertain on some basic level, such as what can only be presumed to be the case for the disastrous direct-to-VHS sequels to 

Today’s food for thought: Behind Enemy Lines.

Being ridiculously jingoistic since: November 30, 2001


Behind Enemy Lines is an awkward blend of entertainment and information. Or maybe misinformation would be a better term. Director John Moore’s fictionalized account of American involvement in the final days of the Bosnian War isn’t so much irresponsible as it is lazy. This is too easy of a film, quickly digestible and dispensable. But at least it was . . . fun?

Owen Wilson played Navy flight officer Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an intelligent but rather undisciplined young man who gets deployed on a holiday mission by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman). Joining him in what was supposed to be a routine reconnaissance mission is pilot Lieutenant Jeremy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). During the flight Burnett suggests they make use of their “shiny new digital camera” — since they’re missing the Christmas dinner onboard the ship they may as well make good use of their time. They end up taking aerial photos of a site that is decidedly outside of their lawful flying route, a demilitarized zone that just so happens to contain a mass grave, an operation being conducted secretly by Bosnian-Serb paramilitary General Miroslav Lokar (Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov). Of course they are spotted and subsequently shot down.

The Americans eject and avoid death by pine tree at Mach 3, though Stackhouse suffers a leg injury and stays behind while Burnett searches for higher ground to radio back to the USS Carl Vinson for help. Unfortunately Serbian forces appear over the horizon and gasp, spoilers! are quick to interrogate and then execute the lone Stackhouse. Burnett goes on the run, but not before he accidentally exposes himself (no, not in the Lenny Kravitz in Sweden kind of way). So ensues an hour and a half of cat-and-mouse across the frozen and rugged mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How long can a sole American Naval officer survive behind enemy lines? If this film’s questionable historical basis (that of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady) is anything to go by, apparently it’s six days (or as long as the running time says).

To provide the drama at least some depth, Moore injects his production with the typical political farce. Burnett’s survival hinges upon whether Hackman’s Reigart can convince the dispassionate NATO Commander — who is overseeing the peace talks between American and Serbian forces — that it will be worth his while to rescue this one guy. While the concerns of Admiral Piquet (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) are valid, there’s very little to justify how long it takes for Admiral Reigart to finally disobey orders by taking matters into his own hands.

Plot holes and predictability notwithstanding, Behind Enemy Lines is, at its best, exemplary of that ‘good-old boys’ huzzah that was clearly gunning for the viewer not as concerned with more accurate, less video-gamey war depictions in the vein of Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates and Black Hawk Down. Though its can-do spirit feels more like faded glory now as the special effects are profoundly poor, chaotic and overly dramatic. Added to which a script that has the typically excellent Gene Hackman stuck between a rock and a hard place delivering, visibly hesitant, corny lines that are intended to motivate Burnett. The blue wash of light from the ship’s command center on Hackman’s face offers some concealment of an actor in discomfort. And as refreshing as it is to see Wilson in a dramatic role — this, mind you, being in retrospect given his upcoming career — he doesn’t fare much better when his final dozen lines devolve into a festival of “goddamnit”‘s.

Behind Enemy Lines has almost innumerable issues, from the technical to the practical. Portrayals of Serbs as the obvious bad guys and Americans as the unquestionable do-gooders make the film ripe for parody. It’s not much of a surprise to learn the filmmakers were unable to hire any Serbian actors for those particular roles. That wasn’t enough to stop Moore from creating a silly, slight but still somewhat enjoyable slice of American action.

Recommendation: Behind Enemy Lines is far from the best war film you’ll see but the cast do a thorough enough job getting into character so believing in the situation isn’t as absurd as it might have been with less experienced actors. That said, the special effects and general clumsiness of the script (particularly the dialogue) leave too much to be desired to warrant anything but a shaky recommendation from me. All that said, this has got to be legions better than anything else that has proceeded it in the so-called “series.” 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: Director John Moore was nearly killed in the scene where the tank busts through the wall. He was pulled away by a stuntman just in time.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.channel4.com

13 thoughts on “TBT: Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

  1. Pingback: No Escape | digitalshortbread

  2. Pingback: TBT: American Beauty (1999) | digitalshortbread

  3. Tom, as ever you have excelled sir! It’s weird seeing Wilson in action star mode isn’t it? It’s hard to believe that for a while he was being touted as something of an action movie star, instead of the largely comic actor he became. I don’t recall this being particularly memorable, although Hackman is always watchable.

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    • Yeah, you know it really is almost jarring seeing wilson in a role like this when we’ve known him now as a comedian (not always successful) for so long. But I think he’s good enough here, and Hackman brings something to the table this movie definitely needed. Both of them are still saddled with a pretty abysmal script though and for the most part BEL is forgettable action stuff. I appreciate the kind words buddy, always puts a smile on my face.

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  4. I always confuse this (which I haven’t seen) with Enemy at the Gates (which I have seen and quite like). Saving Private Ryan still appears to be the benchmark for war films. Great review mate.

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    • Cheers sir. I also got this confused, but with Black Hawk Down haha. It seems Behind Enemy Lines is the forgotten cousin to all these superior war films from the same era. I didn’t mind this as much as my review might suggest, I thought Owen Wilson was quite good. But the overall package just isn’t very satisfying. Agree on SPR. That one is a landmark film, period. NEvermind being a master class in how to make war look as terrible as it probably is

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  5. Hello Tom! I’d never picture Owen Wilson in a film like this, hmmm, but w/ Gene Hackman I thought it’d still be a good one. Sounds like I shouldn’t bother w/ this one eh?

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    • Truthfully I could never remember if it was this or Black Hawk Down I was always wanting to see. Both are war films from the same year (I think) but it’s clear now that BHD is the one I still need to see. Lol!

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  6. Nothing spectacular. Pretty average in all senses. It was supposed to be true, but I had no doubt at the time there were major changes when making it to screen. That’s an amazing bit of trivia mind.

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    • The story is loosely based on the experiences of USAF Captain Scott O’Grady but i think there’s no real adherence to reality beyond that. Still, pretty average is spot-on. Nothing too incredibly terrible (minus a few spurts of dialogue) but nothing to really remember either.

      Isn’t that trivia crazy? Lucky him!


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