War and Peace
Behind Enemy Lines is a glorified chase and rescue war movie that compensates for its cliché-wallowing tendencies with a blend of super cool spectacles and eye-popping attention to rapid-expanding minutiae. With cinematic tricks right out of the Three Kings and Fight Club school of high tech-action sequences, debut director John Moore flexes more visual-action muscle than Top Gun and Pearl Harbor combined. Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) is properly cast as Lieutenant Chris Burnett, a standard issue naval aviator shot down in war ravaged Bosnia after he and his pilot overstep their mission's boundaries for a digital photo recon. The shoot down sequence alone is worth the price of admission for its depiction of an F/A-18 Superhornet jet trying to out-maneuver guided missiles.
Enemy's Chris Burnett has two weeks of service left before he's shot down and becomes a disposable ground pawn due to a fragile NATO peace deal that's been brokered. By now, the narrative device of setting a drama on the last days, or weeks, of a protagonist's duty of service has become a worn-out crutch that screenwriters employ like sugar in their coffee. Even in Robert Redford's new movie Spy Game, the action is culled on Redford's last day with the CIA. There should be a ten-year moratorium on this device so audiences can get a rest. The cliché has been used so much that it carries a negative weight. Nobody cares if a character is on the way out of his job when a bunch of bad stuff happens - so what? It's merely a signal of more inapt clichés to come.
Burnett radios into his commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman, Heist), to get his pick-up location, not knowing that the NATO brass are throwing him to the dogs. And what a mangy bunch of dogs the Serbs who chase Burnett turn out to be. An assassin (Vladimir Mashkov, 15 Minutes) is assigned to track and kill Burnett, while Reigart is forced to send the foot-fleeing navigator in a giant circle leading right back to where he landed by parachute. In the interim, Burnett dodges so many bullets and land mine trip wires that any hope for suspension of disbelief is completely lost.
But that's not to say that Enemy isn't thoroughly entertaining even in its muck and mire of guffaw inducing use of clichés. But it's absolutely in spite of its hackneyed formulas that the movie succeeds with its war romp design. Director John Moore surrounds his subjects with 360-degree camera angle coverage that creates a uniquely cinematic tension.
He switches to hand-held documentary style verité when Burnett arrives in an embattled town, and uses graceful direct overhead shots to reveal aspects of the story without overstating the ideas. When the pilots are forced to eject from their $40 million dollar jet, we see the time-warping blur of dials that the pilots see, and then the rapid-fire inner mechanisms of the aircraft switching and releasing to discharge the pilots. You can feel gravity playing games with the pilots and their high-tech tools like a lion batting a mouse.
By constantly executing flourishes of cinematic wizardry, Moore makes Enemy a series of fantastic magic tricks. Doubtlessly, the screenwriters (there are four of them) are to blame for shooting too many missed bullets at Burnett. But Moore has a modern visual sensibility that triumphs over the narrative limitations and is aided by solid performances by Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson.
There is sure to be a cavalcade of war movies going into production in the immediate future with films like Harrison's Flowers, Black Hawk Down, and We Were Soldiers already slated for release dates in the coming months.
Think of it as cinematic submersion therapy to counter-balance the anguish around us. The world is going through a steep learning curve about the steely glint of evil baring its shiny teeth for the bloodlust of war with the best weapons that money can buy - and everyone is invited.
Behind Enemy Lines is a significant bellwether of war movies to come. We just need to lose the bulletproof heroes and sequenced explosive gymnastics.