An American flyer named Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is down Behind Enemy Lines. The guys back on his aircraft carrier, led by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), naturally want to rescue him. Their opponents do not want that to happen. This is not, perhaps, the most original premise in the history of popular fictions. But wait; it gets a lot better. The setting, posed in a fictitious time frame, is quite clearly the war in the former Yugoslavia; and the Serbians, among whom Burnett has fallen, don't want to take him prisoner. They want to execute him, because his F/A-18 plane, slightly off course, has taken pictures of a massacre--ethnic cleansing on a large scale--and its perpetrators don't want the world to know about it.
Meantime, back on the carrier, Reigart is forced by NATO authorities to abort his rescue mission because it might upset a delicate cease-fire. The admiral hesitates; Burnett keeps running for his life. He's no longer the wisecracking rebel we first met, but despair is not part of his lexicon either. For Wilson stands on the verge of becoming a heroic American archetype, and this should be the part that makes him an authentic star. He's a little bit handsome, a little bit funny, a little bit smart, a little bit cool--but not too much any of those things, which means he's easy to take to heart and root for.
It takes Hackman's Reigart a while to recognize Burnett's good qualities; early in the film he's pegged the kid as a hot dog. Of course, we know that Reigart will come around sooner or later and risk his career to launch (and personally lead) a rescue mission. We'll let you guess--don't work too hard at it--how that comes out.
There are war movies coming along (No Man's Land, Black Hawk Down) that tell more original and riveting stories. This one is no more than good, solid commercial picturemaking (although, come to think of it, that's getting to be something of a rarity lately). But it is well played (special mention to Vladimir Mashkov, who portrays Burnett's implacable tracker with chilling, silent menace) and, better than that, it is well directed by John Moore, whose previous work was in commercials.
For once, we don't have to hold that against a director. Moore can quick-cut with anyone, and he uses that skill intelligently (as in the scene where the F/A-18 pilots eject). But his most memorable work is of a more sweeping sort. He uses a high camera gracefully, swirlingly, to isolate Burnett in the stark and unforgiving mountains. He can also get down on the ground, in low angles, to track Burnett's flight across flatter terrain while still stressing the man's lonely desperation. It's too much to say that Moore's work constitutes a reinvention of the action movie. But he does have a terrific eye, and he never forgets that his hero is one small man moving through a desolate and deadly landscape. Burnett's path through this country is circular; he ends up where he landed. But the journey is never boring, and it's morally satisfying too. O.K., the movie is what Hollywood likes to call "a ride." But it's one worth taking.
--By Richard Schickel