Forget the much-touted flying broomstick scenes in "Harry Potter." They won't sweep you away quite like the aerial sequence in "Behind Enemy Lines," a war film set in Bosnia, whose sudden release date seems curiously timed to capitalize on America's patriotic mood (see related story, page 1). In the film's pivotal moment, two F-16 fighter pilots desperately maneuver to evade a deadly missile that is pursuing them.
The riveting scene - a blend of lovingly observed technical details, tremendous special effects, and inventive editing - is so intense that cinema audiences will fumble with their cup holders, looking for an "eject" button in their seats, even as the two pilots (played by Owen Wilson and Gabriel Macht) activate theirs.
When Serb troops converge on the crash scene, navigator Chris Burnett (Wilson) escapes, but the other pilot is quickly executed. Until US marines can locate and save him, Burnett has to survive in the wild, a forbidding landscape of tundra and forests.
Sound familiar? Maybe not to the "too cool for Potter" 13-year-old boys who will be especially enthralled by the film's action heroics and computer game aesthetics. They may be too young to remember the the real-life case of Scott O'Grady, clearly the inspiration for "Behind Enemy Lines." O'Grady was an F-16 pilot who was shot down in Bosnia in 1995. Subsisting on a diet of ants, O'Grady hid from Serb soldiers for six days before a dramatic rescue by Marine forces. More recently, in 1999, the pilot of a downed F-117A Blackhawk was also rescued near Belgrade.
This isn't to say that "Behind Enemy Lines" is a good history lesson based on those events. The film opts for a "reel life" approach to adapting these stories: The filmmakers don't try to explain the causes and complexities of the Balkan conflict (and who could blame them, given that Stephen Hawkins's "A Brief History of Time" is easier to understand than Yugoslav history). In "Behind Enemy Lines," a character casually refers to the "Cincinnati Peace Accord" rather than the real treaty signed in Dayton, Ohio, which, one supposes, is the filmmaker's tip-off to the audience that the film isn't supposed to adhere rigidly to the facts.
Owen Wilson, whose endearing goofiness has lighted up comedies such as "Shanghai Noon" and "Zoolander," is an unlikely choice of action hero. Wilson's comic talents are, however, effectively used early in the film, during pre-mission scenes on the USS Carl Vinson. He has a good foil in Gene Hackman, who plays the ship's rear admiral and gets to bark orders and bang his fists a lot. (With the exception of Joe Pesci, no one in cinema loses his temper quite like Hackman.)
Wilson acquits himself well in the frequent action scenes, and, against the odds, the "everyman" appeal that he's supposed to have makes him a far more effective casting choice than that of a conventional action star. Still, the relentless action grows thin after a while, and one begins to wish for more scenes where the pilot has moments for more introspection.
In all, this is a surprisingly assured directorial debut by John Moore. He brings a real zip to his cinematography and rapid-fire editing that was honed making TV commercials for video games. At times, the flashiness feels superfluous and showy, but he injects great pace into the film, and the action sequences are at least coherent (something that couldn't be said of "Pearl Harbor.")
But the director completely loses his grip during the climactic action sequence. With a patriotic soundtrack that sounds like a Macy's Thanksgiving parade, a slow-motion Wilson dodges more bullets than Rambo did in three films. It only serves to undermine the ordinary-guy appeal that Wilson's character is supposed to have.