Behind Enemy Lines (2001)


The past few months have seen Hollywood scrambling to reschedule a number of unfortunately timed projects involving terrorists, exploding skyscrapers, and the like. Behind Enemy Lines is the first movie that seems more timely, not less, in light of recent events.

2001, Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by John Moore. Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Joaquim de Almeida, David Keith, Olek Krupa, Eyal Podell, Elizabeth P. Perry, Vladimir Mashkov.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up*

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Intense war-related violence, mayhem, and destruction; some crass and obscene language.

In these days of healing wounds and hunting villains, of American flags and heroes in uniform, Behind Enemy Lines is an unabashedly patriotic pop anthem of courage under fire and sticking it to the bad guy. At a time when America is fighting a “new kind of war,” this movie wants to be a war picture with a difference, set in the fictional near-future rather than the recent or more distant past. And, with special forces behind enemy lines enjoying a prominence and even a celebrity like never before, this film gives us a feel-good story about a hero alone in hostile territory, faced with overwhelming opposition forces, surviving by his wits.

That the hero is played by laconic, ironic Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) suggests that the filmmakers aren’t going for another Pearl Harbor here.

Flashes of flamboyant style and absurdist wit recall Three Kings, Spike Jonze’s startlingly original post-Gulf-War skewering of the war picture. But whereas Three Kings — though a better film — was cynical and antiheroic, a deconstructionist product of the Clinton era, Behind Enemy Lines goes over the top and beyond in grandly heroic and even superheroic style, in a way unmatched by any war movie since the Reagan-era blockbuster Rambo: First Blood Part II.

What saves it from becoming camp is that Wilson is no Rambo, no superhuman commando fighting machine, but a competent everyman overwhelmed by what’s happening to him (think Bruce Willis in the original Die Hard). Behind Enemy Lines doesn’t approach the originality of Three Kings or Die Hard — or even Rambo — but it will make you think of them, along with the glossy romanticism of Top Gun, and the relentless pursuit of Jude Law by Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates.

It will also make you think of a thousand hackneyed scenes in which helicopters rise up from beneath cliff ridges, a ranking officer demanding action is told “This isn’t strictly legal, sir…”, a hero dashes through a hail of machine-gun fire without taking a single bullet, and a C.O. on the brink of leading a time-critical mission wastes precious moments pausing to (yes) deliver a speech about how dangerous the mission is and to invite anyone who wishes to do so to back out now — followed of course by a camera panning past heroic troops standing at attention.

Behind Enemy Lines isn’t great moviemaking by any means. Yet it’s consistently gripping pop entertainment, a slickly crafted war/action movie with a number of harrowing action sequences, a rousing finale, and an unorthodox hero.

Wilson plays Lt. Chris Burnett — not a commando, nor even a pilot, but a Navy aviator stationed on a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Adriatic Sea, flying patrol missions along the Bosnian DMZ on the eve of a NATO withdrawal from the region.

His family is proud of him — “You got important things to do over there,” his father tells him when he calls to explain that he won’t be home for Christmas — but Burnett hasn’t found much to be proud about. “Everyone thinks they’re going to get a chance to punch some Nazis at Normandy,” he laments. “And those days are long over. Now all you get to do is eat Jell-O.”

Burnett’s Jell-O eating days are abruptly halted when he and his pilot deviate from their prescribed patrol route and photograph something they weren’t supposed to see, thereby of course jeopardizing the fragile treaty and cease-fire currently in force. The sequence that follows is one of the most harrowing aerial episodes in any war picture; and, given the title of the film, it’s only a matter of time before Burnett finds himself hoofing it across the Bosnian countryside, hunted by innumerable enemy forces and a dauntless Bosnian tracker (Vladimir Mashkov in comic-book villain mode).

Other gripping sequences include one in which Burnett’s superior Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) watches via satellite heat-signature imagery (à la Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger) as enemy troops close in on Burnett, seemingly certain to find him — until an appalling revelation shows us something Reigart’s satellite imagery doesn’t.

In another haunting moment, eerie echoes of childish laughter hover among the empty buildings of an abandoned oil refinery, leading to a wrenching glimpse of what the children are doing, and where. There are also moments of comic relief, including a brief exhange with a teenaged Bosnian resistance fighter with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a picture of American rapper Ice Cube on his shirt.

Like last week’s Spy Game, Behind Enemy Lines touches simplistically on questions of politics and media in modern warfare without really engaging the underlying complexities. Both movies embrace feel-good solutions, with older veterans (Robert Redford, Hackman) orchestrating the rescue of younger heroes (Brad Pitt, Wilson) in spite of potential consequences; and media leaks are used to counteract political special interests with public pressure. (Both movies also feature gimmicky, hyperkinetic direction — Spy Game from Tony Scott, Behind Enemy Lines from former commercial director John Moore.)

One difference is that in Spy Game the potential risk was only to a Chinese trade agreement, whereas in Behind Enemy Lines the outcome could be war. “You might save one man today, and I emphasize ‘might,’ ” a NATO official warns Reigart, “but you risk the lives of thousands tomorrow.” Of course, given the nature of what Burnett and his pilot have discovered, it might be worth hazarding the cease-fire and the treaty to bring it to light. But the film doesn’t explore this; instead, Burnett wants to make sure their discovery gets out so that his pilot’s death won’t be in vain.

In its final act, Behind Enemy Lines abandons all pretense of realism in favor of cartoony exploits, coincidences, and symbolic tidiness that will leave audiences either fuming or cheering, depending on their willingness to believe. I predict cheering. Behind Enemy Lines is not a perfect movie, but it’s the right movie at the right time.

Action, Adventure, Drama, War