Next to Warner Brothers, which bought the rights to the first Harry Potter book for peanuts, 20th Century Fox is the luckiest studio around. Behind Enemy Lines -- a tight, highly entertaining and patriotic war thriller about soldiers heading into harm's way -- couldn't possibly be more timely. The aerial and ground combat special affects are so realistic they nearly constitute a breakthrough. The two major actors -- Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson -- are terrific, balancing and complimenting one another. The action is fast-paced and non-stop. Wilson really comes into his own in this is a disciplined, old-style Hollywood war yarn. And only a crisp 90 minutes long! SPOILAGE WARNING: plot is discussed, not ending.
The plot centers on an aircraft carrier patrolling near the end of the savage conflict in Bosnia. The ship is run by Americans but under the command of NATO, a setup for the murky global politics that underscore the plot. Lt. Chris Burnett (Wilson) is sick of the routines of non-combat flying and is considered a spoiled hotdog by his weary Admiral Riegart (Hackman). A wise-cracking smartass, he's sent on an aerial reconnaissance mission on Christmas Day. Ever looking to push the envelope (shades of Tom Cruise in Top Gun ), he veers off course and takes pictures of things he's not supposed to see -- civilians being slaughtered. His plane is shot down in a whiz-bang, special-affects laden sequence, his co-pilot and best buddy murdered as he looks on helplessly.
From the first shot, Director John Moore knows exactly what he's doing. The movie has an authentic, gung-ho quality too it, and it's eerily prescient -- the spy satellite and thermal imaging stuff is right out of today's evening newscasts. The Bosnian war and background scenes are authentic and disturbing. The movie moves like a rocket, pushed along by jump cuts, aerial shots and changes in film speed and angles. It doesn't get cluttered up with the usual distractions (remember Pearl Harbor's belabored love interests and other digressions?). And it actually ends right where it should, a minor cinematic miracle these days! Wilson convincingly evolves from an irresponsible snot-nose into a resourceful warrior, pursued by cool, murderous Bosnian soldiers who want to get the film of a massacre he shot from his onboard digital camera. Riegert is snarled in bureaucracy, his efforts to save the pilot complicated by a weak-kneed U.S. government and NATO wussies worried about global politics and diplomatic concerns.
As the onboard Marines restlessly lobby to fire up their Apaches and go in and get him, Wilson dodges and battles the Bosnian army all over the European forests (the movie was shot in Eastern Europe). The ending is pure John Wayne. This is a first-rate war thriller under any circumstances, but given the particular ones raging in Afghanistan, it's going to be a blockbuster.