Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:45 - Released 11/30/01

Owen Wilson, the puckering-lipped pretty boy who has starred in such silly comedies as Shanghai Noon (with Jackie Chan) and Zoolander (with Ben Stiller), bursts into action-hero mode with Behind Enemy Lines, the debut film from director John Moore. A thrilling survival story written by brothers Jim and John Thomas and adapted for the screen by David Veloz and Zak Penn, it follows a downed Navy navigator on the run from Serbian manhunters in war-torn Bosnia. Beautifully framed by cinematographer Brendan Galvin and featuring a memorable musical score by Don Davis, it builds expertly from its opening until about four-fifths of the way through, when director Moore decides to go full-throttle with the John Wayne heroics and his final reel devolves into ridiculosity. Look it up. Opposite Wilson (although they almost never share the screen together) is Gene Hackman, who again maintains his rock-solid standing as one of the most versatile and reliable actors working. If it weren't for Hackman, this film would not be half what it is, but his presence makes a difference.

Wilson plays Lt. Chris Burnett, an F-18 navigator stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the Adriatic Sea. Tired of being on the sidelines of the situation in Bosnia and cynical about the Navy's ineffective position in the conflict, Burnett has already expressed his retirement plans to his superior officer, Adm. Leslie McMahon Reigart (Hackman). Perhaps in return for this, Reigart gives Burnett and his pilot, Lt. Jeremy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), a Christmas day reconnaissance assignment. Burnett gripes about being given such a routine mission "during the one good meal of the year," but when he sees something interesting in enemy territory they deviate from their flight plan and enter restricted air space. Within minutes of flying over a suspicious site (and taking digital pictures of it), they find themselves engaged by a band of Eastern European soldiers, who have launched a surface-to-air missile. Unable to evade the deadly rocket, Burnett and Stackhouse are forced to eject over hostile territory and watch as their destroyed plane crashes in the distance. Soon Stackhouse is killed, and Burnett is on the run from the Serbs, who know that the pictures he took would incriminate them. Meanwhile Reigart, prevented from launching a rescue mission for fear of endangering peace talks, is forced to watch and listen from the sidelines. Like Snoopy making his way through occupied France, Burnett must try to reach friendly ground on his own without any hope of rescue.

Wilson does admirably well with his first starring role as an action hero, bringing an easy charm and a distinct "regular guy" sense to his characterization. Hackman, decorated veteran of many military-themed movies (including Bat 21, in which he played a downed pilot behind enemy lines in Vietnam), is as effective as ever in another such role, but since he's forced to spend most of the movie pacing around the ship worrying, he's not allowed to join in much of the fun. Speaking of fun, the most engaging part of this movie is no doubt the F-18 flying sequence where Stackhouse and Burnett are being pursued by the SAM. It is incredibly exciting, with fast-paced cuts and thrilling music layered onto the controlled intensity of the actors' performances, which are really just vocal performances since we can't see much more than their eyes through their flight gear. It's the kind of riveting jet warfare footage that made Top Gun so popular all those years ago. More importantly, it is believable, a claim that the other main action setpiece, which occurs during the climax, cannot make. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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