Behind Enemy Lines Review
Behind Enemy Lines is a difficult, sensitive and challenging film from first time director John Moore, which evaluates the role NATO played in policing the Balkan conflict and attempting, against all odds, to keep some semblance of peace. It counterpoints the experiences of the soldiers in the air and on the ground with a growing feeling of resentment back home in the US over their soldiers' participation. Through the eyes of a disillusioned pilot in the US Navy following the shooting down of his plane, we are forced to view the aftermath of warfare within modern Europe and realise, as he does, the true horror of the hostilities in the former Yugoslavia and the shattering effect that the war had on those victims of atrocities committed in the name of nationalism.
No, honestly, that film is in here somewhere but so, no doubt, are diamonds in a coalmine if you're prepared to look hard enough. What we are actually much closer to is Top Gun In The Balkans. Like the Carry On films, and their historical and geographical repositioning of the same jokes, we're apparently now fated to get reruns of Simpson and Bruckheimer's 80's landmark in war zones in which the US won. By 2005, we should be getting Top Gun vs. The Taliban and, with Hollywood already petitioning Washington to get the war moving and the rest of the world be damned, 2007 should bring us Top Gun in Iraq: Final Strike!
Yep, it's a flying, shooting, one man on a mission kind of film which takes one of Uncle Sam's wisecracking yet steely-eyed finest, puts him in an impossible situation and stands back as he tears up all hell on Johnny Foreigner.
Owen Wilson stars as Chris Burnett who is unhappy in his role as "a cop on a beat no one cares about", stationed in the Adriatic Sea during hostilities in Bosnia. Burnett wants to leave to fly commercial airlines, preferably rich rock stars in private jets, as his missions over Bosnia keep getting cancelled by NATO just before take-off. As a result, he argues with Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), Commander of the Adriatic Naval Force, over the role of the US Navy in the war. Burnett, in frustration at the lack of activity, resigns his post but Reigart will only hold onto the letter for now.
It's Christmas, and Burnett and Stackhouse, not being favourite sons of the Navy anymore, are posted out on recon over Bosnia while the rest of the crew are enjoying their Christmas dinner. Stackhouse and Burnett take off but during a routine flight, change course and go off mission where they photograph unauthorised activity by the Serbs in what should be the demilitarised zone. There are three Serbs worth noting - Beret, real name Lokar, identified by his uniform and, uh...his beret; Mullet, in uniform, bad haircut from a pre-war era, might have a name but style is conspicuous by its absence and The Tracker, no name, no beret, no fear but a sniper rifle and a fake Adidas tracksuit.
There are some other Serbs but they're not called upon to do not much more than point, shoot and look surly but what are they up to? It looks like little more than hanging around on an airstrip but they don't like being photographed by NATO so The Tracker shoots Burnett and Stackhouse down using two Surface-To-Air missiles in what is - and I'm not kidding you - a fabulously exciting piece of film.
Burnett and Stackhouse eject, land and get separated. Mullet and the non-speaking parts know where they are so they show up, scowl for a moment until Beret arrives with The Tracker who executes Stackhouse. Burnett escapes, is now alone and on the run and Admiral Piquet, the French NATO Naval Commander, denies any rescue attempt. Piquet is actually played by the slightly more Portuguese than French Joaquim de Almeida, but I guess one European is much the same as the other - he should be thankful he's not playing a Serb.
Avoiding capture in Bosnia, Burnett uncovers evidence of a mass grave, witnesses a shootout in what was supposed to be a safe town, travels with Bosnian Muslims - sympathetically portrayed as Coca-Cola drinking, hip-hop-loving friends of America, wouldn't you know - and survives numerous attempts to capture him.
Wilson isn't bad in the role of Burnett. He has a certain charisma that is missing in more obvious action heroes and Hackman plays to type as the gruff, uncomplicated Admiral. de Almeida is good though it would be matching his talent if Hollywood gave him a bigger role in something. The main villains, the Serbs, are a bit poor on the whole. There are attempts to flesh out their roles a little but it always appears half-hearted and never follows through to showing the real horror of ethnic cleansing.
Special mention, however, must go to the News Corporation Product Integration Division, headquartered in Rupert Murdoch's head, which don't even bother to explain why a Sky News reporter is the only member of the press aboard the aircraft carrier. Sky News, you say? In a 20th Century Fox production? Well I never! You half expect the Dirty Digger himself to co-pilot the chopper that saves Burnett, armed only with two contracts - a book deal from Harper Collins and the serialisation rights in The Times. The most consistently entertaining aspect of any 20th Century Fox production these days is Murdoch bingo - how many partner companies spurred off the News Corporation empire can possibly be name checked in a film. It's nearly always Sky, so only a score of one in Behind Enemy Lines, but I'm always hoping for a mention of Star TV.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 PAL transfer and looks really good, occasionally beautiful but it helps if you are partial to European autumn and winter landscapes. The transfer is good - look carefully and there is a little pixellation but colours remain well-defined throughout though, to be honest, the print is a little washed out but this is a deliberate effect on external scenes to provide contrast to those filmed within the aircraft carrier.
There are shots in this film, which could be extracted, framed and hung on your wall, and they would look fantastic in a signature line of War Is Hell posters for student bedsits but credit is due to the filmmakers for avoiding the CG sheen and blurring that affects many films today. Behind Enemy Lines looks very sharp and clear when unaffected and it is these scenes, more than the visual tricks, which will remain in the mind after the film has finished.
Behind Enemy Lines does sound fantastic with a great dynamic range, moving from near silence to a plaster-shifting volume in an instant. English is the only language supported but the soundtrack is available in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The DTS does sound slightly better overall but really shines in the action sequences with a less pressured sound, allowing the full range of the mix to open up. If you have a DTS system, select that soundtrack when watching this film and don't watch it at night if you live in a built-up area or have children - at times, it is incredibly loud.
The surround channels are quite well used, as is the subwoofer, but many of the instances where they would be called into play are over too quickly due to the way the film has been edited, such that so too are the audio effects.
Feature Length Audio Commentaries: There are two commentaries on the DVD both of which are also subtitled in English and presented in Stereo Surround sound:
1. The first is by director John Moore and editor Paul Martin Smith and is a fairly interesting commentary in that they clearly, at some point, wanted to make a drama about the war in the Balkans or, at the very least, produce a more significant film than was eventually released. There is a slight note of desperation in their voices as they highlight the 'serious' issues covered in the film, such as the mass graves but it's never entirely convincing. They are consistent enough, however, that you wonder if 20th Century Fox did pull production around to remove some of the drama and up the action. The answer is that, undoubtedly, they did not, but as a post-release claim on being a more important film than the critics realised at the time, they put in a lot of effort. At one point they actually criticise Roger Ebert for criticising their film - silly but you have to admire their cheek.
2. The second commentary is by producers John Davies and Wick Godfrey and is quite dry, not really that interesting and fails to really open up aspects of the production beyond what is available elsewhere on the disc.
Featurette (4:3, Stereo Surround, 6m7s): This is a bit of a backslapping and promotional affair concentrating on the challenges of shooting on an aircraft carrier, getting the support of the US Navy and a good-natured view of Owen Wilson's flights in a real F-18.
Pre-Vis Ejection Sequence (non-anamorphic 2.35:1 in 4:3 frame, Stereo Surround, 5m25s): This is an early test sequence showing the F-18 recon flight, its shooting down and the ejection of Burnett and Stackhouse. It is a mix of animation, simple CG effects, models, live action and storyboards and is quite close to the finished section in the film. The main differences between this and the actual sequence in the finished film is that the dialogue is a little more raw here, i.e. more swearing, and there is slightly more violence shown in this version which was cut from the finished film to get a PG-13 rating in the US.
John Moore and Paul Martin Smith have provided a commentary for this section, which is subtitled in English, but they mainly highlight where cuts and changes were made to get the PG-13 certification.
Deleted Scenes: There are seven deleted or alternative scenes in total all of which are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 framed within 4:3 fullscreen with Stereo Surround and include an English subtitled commentary by John Moore and Paul Martin Smith:
Please note - I have edited the name of Deleted Scene 5 to prevent spoilers. Scene 6 may contain minor spoilers.
1. Alternative Main Title Sequence, 2m54s: A better opening than that in the final film showing the Serbs digging and filling in a mass grave
2. Take Off, 2m3s: An alternative sequence showing Burnett and Stackhouse taking off on their recon mission with a lot more padding
3. Mass Grave, 4m23s: A slightly more graphic version of the scene where Burnett has fallen into the mass grave. This was cut to get a PG-13 rating
4. Hac, 2m20s: Again, a slightly more graphic version of the scenes in Hac cut for a PG-13 rating
5. Killing of The... 1m43s: Once again, a slightly more graphic version of the scene in the final film cut for a PG-13 rating
6. Original End Credit Sequence, 1m15s: An alternative ending shown in split screen with the UN investigating the mass grave found by Burnett played against Lokar being arrested whilst on the run by UN troops. This is better than the original ending.
7. Reigart Relieved of Duty, 1m23s: An unnecessary expansion of the original footage explaining that Reigart was being pushed to a desk job in Washington and relieved of active duty.
Easter Egg: Discovering this reveals an alternative sequence of Burnett in a truck with the Bosnian Muslims filmed in case the hip-hop track originally used did not get artist and label clearance.
It all sounds exciting, no? Well, don't expect too much analysis of the Balkan conflict, international politics and military responsibilities within NATO. In fact don't expect anything at all other than a big, dumb lunk of a film that works hard to impress you with its jump cut editing, freeze-frames, slow motion, anything at all, in fact, in its visual box of tricks, paired up with a explosive soundtrack. If that's all you want, Behind Enemy Lines will suffice. I'll even watch it again someday when I have a spare 100mins and I'm free to turn up the DTS amp but is it a great, classic war drama? No, but it's a lot more fun and no more stupid than van Damme but somehow, you know there was an opportunity for something greater which has been sadly missed.