Behind Enemy Lines is a 2001 John Moore-directed action war film with clear cat and mouse elements. The movie has a good overall story that is brought to life by effective performances. However, the lack of historical and political context and the over-stylized cinematography and editing prevent this movie from reaching its full potential.
The plot focuses on Lieutenant Chris Burnett, a U.S. naval aviation navigator who is shot down over restricted airspace while on a reconnaissance mission. Burnett survives but witnesses the execution of his pilot. A cat and mouse device is employed as Burnett is tasked with escaping both pursuing troops and a determined, ruthless marksman in his attempt to reach his rescue site. Complicating the matter is the fact that Admiral Reigart, Burnett’s commanding officer, faces political opposition to the rescue efforts.
Broadly speaking, the film’s pacing nicely fits the narrative. The beginning is strong as it establishes the main characters. When Burnett is forced to survive and evade his enemies, the hunt naturally propels the development.
Although the macro-level parts of the story are well done, there is a major downside regarding the lack of context. Unless audiences are keenly aware of the Bosnian War and genocide, they will likely be confused about the non-American characters, particularly those chasing Burnett and the people he encounters along his journey. As a result, audiences will have no choice but to view the characters in reductive terms of “Since these groups are chasing Burnett, they must be the bad guys,” which nullifies the situation’s intricacies.
Viewers will realize that the circumstances are indeed complex but will lack a deeper understanding of the setting. This could have been fixed by having an opening text at the beginning that brings audiences up to speed regarding developments in the area of Burnett’s operations. Another suggestion would be to have included brief expository and contextualizing information as the characters are introduced. The latter may have been the better option, since the film is already heavily stylized.
The dysfunction and politicization of the military is portrayed in a shocking manner. When Burnett makes it to a designated location, he is told to move to a new pickup site. This happens frequently which hampers the pacing and becomes obnoxious, though audiences will sympathize with the navigator’s plight. If viewers, like Burnett, persevere, the film’s conclusion is superb and worth the wait.
Behind Enemy Lines is infused with tones of abandonment, survival, a cat and mouse hunt, and it shows how politics can directly impact people’s lives, whether it be good or bad. The tones help round out the story and add flare and tension that will keep audiences rooting for Burnett’s survival. Sadly, the aforementioned pacing problems dull the tones’ edge.
The performances are well done. Owen Wilson’s Chris Burnett is initially a babbler, but as his mission becomes more and more critical, he becomes sympathetic. By the end of the film, viewers will likely be irked by the military but will respect Burnett and Admiral Reigart. In all, Wilson’s performance is excellent. He does a great job outside the realm of comedies and Wes Anderson films.
Gene Hackman gives a strong performance as Admiral Reigart. It is great to watch the relationship between Reigart and Burnett grow as the film progresses. Viewers will not envy Reigart for the political web in which he is entangled and for the difficult decisions he has to make. Hackman’s portrayal of all of this is effective and terrific.
Vladimir Mashkov’s Sasha the Tracker is intimidating albeit comical. His ruthless nature is depicted well. Sasha is a good hunter and is not someone you would want following you throughout the war-torn Balkans. However, his over-the-top seriousness, mixed with the film’s style, makes for a lightly humorous presentation as he is the “big bad” killer.
In terms of the cinematography and editing, Behind Enemy Lines has an overreliance on fast motion and zoom freeze shots and editing. This would be acceptable if they were used sparingly, but these were utilized so much throughout the film that they became distracting. Sadly, the majority of traditional zooms, dolly zooms, and extreme close-ups were not used to the best effect.
It is understandable that the director and cinematographer were going for a non-traditional, stylized presentation, but I found it to not only detract from the story’s serious tone, but from its emotional elements. For the most part, the cinematography fell flat. The second unit and library shots, however, looked great and were well-blended with the principal photography.
John Moore’s direction of Behind Enemy Lines is varied. He does a great job depicting the characters, especially Burnett and Reigart, but the melodramatic way in which Sasha is portrayed tarnishes his image. This is a shame because Sasha has the framework for being a terrific antagonist.
The lack of necessary story context will likely leave a decent cross-section of viewers confused about the interplay in this complex, bloody conflict. This, mixed with the film’s larger presentation and style, which were not effective for this type of film, will probably leave viewers feeling tepid about the movie. Rounding out the oscillating nature of Moore’s direction is the fact that the ending is very well done and emotional.
In the end, Behind Enemy Lines is a fun action film with clear problems. Despite having a good story foundation, the lack of context and the film’s peculiar style preclude it from reaching its full potential. If you are looking for the level of sophistication in global affairs storytelling that is often found in Tom Clancy films, this movie will leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately, the conclusion is remarkably done and is worth it in and of itself. Behind Enemy Lines is a good movie if you simply want a popcorn flick, which is exactly how it should be viewed.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Production: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Davis Entertainment
Director: John Moore
Producer: John Davis
Screenwriter: Jim Thomas (story); John Thomas (story); David Veloz (screenplay); Zak Penn (screenplay)
Director of Photography: Brendan Galvin
Editor: Paul Martin Smith
Set Direction: Mario Ivezic
Production Design: Nathan Crowley
Costume Design: George L. Little
Music: Don Davis
Budget: ca. $40,000,000
Release Date: November 30, 2001
Cinematographic Process: Super 35
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Copyright Holder: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Cast: Owen Wilson; Gene Hackman; Gabriel Macht; Charles Malik Whitfield; Joaquim de Almeida; David Keith; Olek Krupa; Vladimir Mashkov; Marko Igonda
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Rating: PG-13; Descriptors: War Violence and some language.
Running Time: 1 hour and 46 minutes (106 mins.)