“Behind Enemy Lines” is an old-fashioned, heart-thumping, send-in-the-Marines, “I don’t care what the orders say” rescue mission story, and the most purely exciting movie of the year.
Equal parts adrenaline and testosterone, it wastes no time in getting us into the action. Owen Wilson plays Chris Burnett, a Navy navigator who is impatient with whatever it is that the US is doing in Bosnia. He longs for some excitement. When he and his partner are sent out on a routine reconnaissance mission on Christmas Day, they stray out of the prescribed area because they see something suspicious. Then they are shot down.
All of this is very inconvenient to NATO, which is in the final stages of negotiating a very fragile peace agreement. Burnett tries to stay alive and get to a safe rendezvous spot as his commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), tries to direct a rescue mission.
What this means is about 90-pulse-pounding minutes of non-stop nightmarish action as Burnett is chased by an assassin through minefields and desolation of all kinds, from ravaged trees to burnt-out cities. Meanwhile, the Admiral has an almost as treacherous struggle as he makes use of the most sophisticated technology to track Burnett’s position but is thwarted by politics when he orders a rescue.
It is brilliantly filmed by first-time feature director John Moore who masters both the second-by-second intensity of the action sequences and the bleakness of the physical and political landscape. The aerial combat scenes are stunning. The parallels between the personal, the psychic, and the political are subtly intertwined, and the rousing, send-in-the-Marines finish is, these days, especially satisfying.
In the midst of the action, there are dozens of moments filled with quiet power. The ejected officers drift down as the camera circles a hugely imposing statue of the Madonna, looking over a barren landscape, and we see that half of her face has been blown off. A young boy’s English vocabulary is based on Ice T lyrics. Two officers walk down the hall toward a father who knows that they do not deliver good news in person.
Hackman, as always, is a joy to watch, doing wonders with the subtle struggle of a by-the-books patriot whose loyalty and sense of honor makes him risk everything, knowing that his career is on the line. Wilson, in his first major dramatic role, does not show much range, but is a very likeable presence as a classic American hero – brave, resourceful, and a little cynical, but everything we would hope for when the time comes. Charles Malick Whitfield is the Marine we all want to rescue us, and David Keith contributes a fine performance as the Admiral’s aide.
Parents should know that the movie, though rated PG-13, has intense peril and devastating violence, with many characters killed. Children and young teens are involved. There is brief strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the complexity of today’s military actions, compared to the stark contrast between freedom and tyranny in previous wars (at least as portrayed in most history books and movies). They might want to compare this movie to others like Three Kings (very mature material) and The Longest Day.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Hackman as a submarine commander in Crimson Tide.