It is not beyond the realm of possibility that ripping yarns about American military personnel might enjoy a fresh surge of popularity, but whoppers as synthetic and cliched as “Behind Enemy Lines” are better-suited to discrediting a trend than inspiring one.
The initially promising and timely pretext is obviously derived from the Scott O’Grady rescue mission in Yugoslavia a few years ago. The showboating execution reflects a minimum of authenticity and an excess of Hollywood artificiality, particularly when digital illustrative peril is being hurled in the vicinity of the hero, a downed Navy reconnaissance navigator played by Owen Wilson.
Mr. Wilson’s stock in trade is droll and disarming heroism, which might have harmonized with a scenario that favored realism and understatement. “Behind Enemy Lines” makes itself hostage to hyperbolic spectacle, reducing the leading man to a kind of pinball in an arbitrarily booby-trapped maze, with Serbian mercenaries and ordnance always nipping at his heels but somehow failing to impede his flight. Mr. Wilson is permitted to remain one step ahead of an audiovisual uproar that begins to look downright cartoonish, similar to Wile E. Coyote in futile pursuit of the Road Runner.
The moving target is named Chris Burnett, the navigator on an F-18 jet reconnaissance plane flying missions from the USS Carl Vinson, a more impressive prop than the movie deserves. Burnett has kind of burned his commanding officer, Gene Hackman as Adm. Leslie Riegart, by announcing his intention of leaving the service well short of a sustained career. The Balkan war zone seemingly has cooled off, and Burnett seems persuaded that civilian life might offer more action and challenge. Naturally, adversity is destined to change his outlook.
Assigned to a Christmas Eve mission presumed to be ho-hum, Burnett and pilot Jim Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), nicknamed Longhorn and Smoke, respectively, are shot down by surface-to-air missiles when they stray recklessly over Serbian territory. It’s just their bad luck that the Serbs, scowling menaces to the last man, have some recent atrocities to hide. The presence of American aerial surveillance brings out their vindictive side.
Burnett ejects and lands without serious injury. Stackhouse suffers a crippling leg injury and then gets executed by a Serbian gunman. Having witnessed this atrocity from a distant vantage point while seeking high ground for communication with the carrier and its rescue unit, Burnett becomes a marked man. The rest of the movie attempts to orchestrate a series of rousing escapes until Mr. Hackman finally can get a rescue mission off the deck of the Vinson. Supposedly, he is constrained by diplomatic hesitation and red tape, embodied by a second admiral, the Spanish actor Joaquin de Almeida, affecting a British accent that doesn’t help in the slightest to explain why he might outrank Gene Hackman in a Hollywood frame of reference.
The idea that Mr. Hackman could be messed with while itching to save one of his lost sheep also offends Hollywood combat tradition because Mr. Hackman had to elude capture by the Viet Cong in “Bat-21,” circa 1988, until Danny Glover could swoop to his rescue in an Air Force helicopter. Clearly, Mr. Hackman is returning a favor and should tolerate no guff.
It’s an index to the movie’s stubborn air of preposterousness that one never believes in a chain of command that depends on military, as opposed to stellar, rank. All the obstacles are self-evident time killers, necessary to enlarge the number of sequences in which Mr. Wilson can pretend to elude capture or obliteration.
The special effects start to get frenzied to a fault while digital SAMs are chasing the doomed plane. They kind of bottom out when Burnett somehow blunders into a minefield at an abandoned factory, then runs away while explosions avalanche ostentatiously but harmlessly behind his flying feet.
Director John Moore has no discernible control over the harebrained spectacle commissioned from the computer-graphics unit. It’s possible that he could function quite respectably in low-key, down-to-earth circumstances. The establishing shipboard sequences are amiable, and the camaraderie that initially links Burnett and Stackhouse is recalled with an effective gallows-humor twist when Burnett acquires a young Bosnian sidekick for a while. Curiously, this association is tossed away, although the newcomer obviously would come in handy during Burnett’s final confrontation with the most tenacious menace, Vladimir Maskov as an implacable assassin named Sasha.
Given the drift of the show, Sasha is less of a threat than the pyrotechnic specialists entrusted with overcooking the chase sequences. One takes a certain consolation in the fact that it’s impossible to get an authentic sense of rescue techniques from Mr. Hackman’s arrival on the scene. The methods employed in this valiant and invaluable line of work are supposed to remain secretive. Judging from “Behind Enemy Lines,” they remain a complete, dumbfounding mystery to Hollywood poachers and masqueraders.