Owen Wilson has generally succeeded in carving a niche as a sarcastic and sardonic screen presence in films as varied as Bottle Rocket, Zoolander and Shanghai Noon. He has an engaging, boyish quality that has served him well, whether playing a serial killer (The Minus Man) or a substance-abusing author (The Royal Tenenbaums, which he also co-wrote). So despite his versatility, one doesn't exactly think of him as an action hero, but that's precisely what he has become with Behind Enemy Lines, a taut and tidy war drama about a fighter pilot who veers off course on a routine mission over Bosnia, discovers an atrocity and has his plane shot down. Because he wasn't exactly following orders, Jack Burnett (Wilson) is in a dicey situation. His commanding officer Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) has been told that a rescue mission is out of the question. Pursued by a deadly assassin as well as Serbian troops, Burnett has to rely on his wits to survive until someone comes to rescue him.
The screenplay, credited to David Veloz and Zak Penn from a story by brothers James Thomas and John Thomas, sets up a rather schematic situation. Burnett is a fine navigator who is bored by the routine missions he's asked to fly. Rather than seeing combat as he was promised, he and his co-pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) pass time on reconnaissance missions. Frequently clashing with his commanding officer, Burnett has decided to opt out and plans to do so at the start of the coming year. In contrast, Reigart sees the potential in Burnett, but is frustrated by the younger man's impatience. When each is called to act when Burnett gets into trouble, there is a parallelism in the story; both in a way are stuck operating in hostile territories. For Burnett, it is literal; for Reigart it is political.
Behind Enemy Lines was well-directed by Irishman John Moore, a still photographer who honed his craft with a series of acclaimed commercials. Employing various film stocks, handheld cameras and other flashy techniques, Moore draws the audience into the story from the harrowing moments when Burnett has to eject from his plane to the horrors he witnesses firsthand. There are several sequences that are immaculately shot and edited, for example, a sequence when Reigart's crew hijacks a heat-seeking satellite and zeroes in on Burnett who is hiding as a phalanx of Serbian troops approach. Appearing to be "dead" (he's playing possum), Reigart and company become convinced he has been killed -- until they see otherwise. It's an ingenious use of technology and a nail-biting incident. Moore knows how to stage battle sequences as well and the production has the "look" of a war-torn land, whether it's the primordial forest through which Burnett runs, a booby-trapped factory or a town under siege. Credit has to go to director of photography Brendan Galvin, production designer Nathan Crowley and editor Paul Martin Smith.
As in most action films, the actors aren't really called upon to "emote." Wilson injects moments of his trademark smart-aleck persona but they are tempered by his respect for the character. Hackman projects the required authority and guts as the Admiral and David Keith is fine as his right-hand man. Joaquim de Almeida lends the proper gravitas to his role as a representative of NATO, while Olek Krupa and Vladimir Mashkov are suitably menacing in their roles as a Serbian general and a marksman out to kill Burnett, respectively.
Behind Enemy Lines revolves around heroism and that is something which should strike a particular chord given the Zeitgeist. It shows that courage, bravery and spirit are not necessarily in short supply. Perhaps that lesson has been learned since September 11, 2001, but it's not a bad thing of which to be reminded.
Rating: B MPAA rating: PG-13 Running time: 110 mins.