Behind Enemy Lines Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the theatrical release of Behind Enemy Lines. A moderately entertaining but deeply, deeply stupid shoot-em-up that is half-heartedly masquerading as a serious war film, but is it so bad it’s good?

After September 11th, Hollywood initially seemed to move away from the kind of action films that glorified violence, with popular taste seeming to be closer to the sort of light, entertaining films that could happily have been made in a far less cynical age, such as Harry Potter and Ocean’s Eleven (the latter, of course, being a remake of a film that was made in such an age.) Of course, this was unlikely to last, and the current glut of war films on the way is an indication of the more aggressive tendencies prevalent in many people’s minds at the moment. Behind Enemy Lines may well come to be seen as the nadir of this movement, an efficient and entertaining action film that unfortunately is about as dramatically convincing as a war drama as an episode of Teletubbies.

The plot initially seems to be nodding to Top Gun and the Vietnam films of the late 1980s (Bat 21, Uncommon Valour etc), as Chris Burnett (Wilson), a vaguely rebellious plane navigator, and his more easygoing friend and pilot Stackhouse (Macht) are assigned to a photographic mission over Bosnia, as penance for Burnett’s anti-authoritarian attitude, as epitomised by his defiance of stern-but-loveable Admiral Reigart (Hackman). Unfortunately, while on the mission, Burnett and Stackhouse are shot down, with Stackhouse being murdered by the oh-so-evil Bosnians, and Burnett going on the run behind, unsurprisingly, enemy lines.

As an action film, this is moderately enjoyable stuff, if fairly mindless most of the time. Wilson, closer here to his astronaut/miner/Zen dude in Armageddon than his more broadly comic turns in Zoolander and Shanghai Noon, is a decent enough action hero, Hackman does his patented excellent supporting performance, managing to elevate every scene that he is in, and debutant director Moore manages to make the film visually interesting, if highly reminiscent of the recent work of Ridley and Tony Scott, with some neat uses of slow and fast motion, as well as adopting an appropriately gritty cinematographic style. There are also some superb action scenes here, the finest being a breathlessly kinetic scene where Burnett and Stackhouse attempt to evade enemy missiles by plane.

However, what utterly scuppers the film is the sheer stupidity of its script, co-written, fittingly enough, by one ‘John Thomas’. It would be unfair to criticise one area of the storyline in particular, but a central fault is that virtually every dramatic cliche of the war film is used, exploited, and then overdone, from the admiral who wants to ‘bring his boys back home safely’, to, unbelievably, shots of Burnett’s father weeping while watching Sky News. The climax scales heights of stupidity hitherto only hinted at in the rest of the film; while it would be spoiling it to describe what happens, suffice it to say that the average John Wayne film probably looked like a masterpiece of tolerance and understanding by comparison. It goes without saying that the dialogue is appallingly cheesy throughout, that the plotting is haphazard, and that the ‘characters’ seem to have been drawn from the screenwriter’s manual of ‘Stock figures to put in mediocre war film: part 2’.

With Ridley Scott’s reportedly excellent Black Hawk Down being released in January, it’s tempting to recommend that viewers wait until then to see a decent war film. Until then, this will have to do; however, despite the decent performances and occasionally exciting moments, this is simply too weak a film to actually recommend. Much as Michael Bay’s films have been criticised for mindless patriotism and cheesy flagwaving, they look like anti-war masterpieces compared to this (yes, and that includes Pearl Harbor

Alexander Larman

Updated: Dec 30, 2001

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