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An Unflagging, Flag-Waving Flyboy


It may look like a little like him, but that's definitely not Tom Cruise on the poster for "Behind Enemy Lines." The confusion, though, is understandable, given a film that might as well be called "Top Gun Goes to Bosnia." Hotshot flyboys rule one more time, proving to the world that once a lone American gets riled up, adversaries on foreign shores, no matter how numerous, had best look to their laurels.

With its hip-hip-hooray tone and pumped-up patriotic volume, "Behind Enemy Lines" may prove to be particularly suited to these increasingly bellicose times. A live-action recruiting poster for today's military, the film shows how some time under fire turns undisciplined wiseacres into men Uncle Sam can be proud to call his own.

Masterminds of this transformation are screenwriters Zak Penn and David Veloz, working from a story by James Thomas & John Thomas, brothers whose credits include the misbegotten duo of "Mission to Mars" and "Wild, Wild West." The director's name is an unfamiliar one, but only a few minutes of footage are necessary to figure out where he's coming from. This is John Moore's first theatrical feature, attempted after a career of what's described as "innovative" commercials. Though not particularly thoughtful, "Behind Enemy Lines" is not dull. Helped by cinematographer Brendan Galvin and "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" editor Paul Martin Smith, Moore offers up picturesque vistas, shots lasting fractions of a second and enough action cut to music to make this feel like an MTV war movie.

The undisciplined, Cruisian hero is Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), nickname Longhorn, the ace navigator for pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), nickname Smoke. Stationed on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson "somewhere in the Adriatic," both men, but especially Burnett, are bored, bored, bored with their current assignment.

Stuck enforcing a mythical international cease-fire in some kind of parallel universe where the truce in Bosnia is based on "the Cincinnati Accords" (it was Dayton in real life), Burnett does a lot of grumbling. He doesn't want to be "a cop on a beat no one cares about"; if "the days of punching Nazis in the face at Normandy are long gone," he is ready to leave this man's Navy and devote himself to flying jets for rock stars.

Wilson, best known for casually comic roles in such films as "Zoolander," "Shanghai Noon" and "Meet the Parents," is an effective choice for the glib hotshot who doesn't take anything seriously. But as the action cranks up, as it inevitably does, his good qualities get steamrollered into the standard action-hero mold.

Standing for everything Burnett dislikes about the Navy is Adm. Reigart (Gene Hackman), who, if admirals had nicknames, would likely be called Crusty. He is, as a fellow admiral says, an uncomplicated man, and he's irked by Burnett's jokey attitude and his desire to leave the Navy. "You wouldn't know," he tells the younger man, well, crustily, "the first thing about serving your country."

All this comes to a head on a routine Christmas Day reconnaissance flight over Bosnia when Burnett and Stackhouse get entrepreneurial and see something they shouldn't. Shot down, they have to manage as best they can against hordes of angry Serbs, who wear black berets to emphasize the evil already visible in their swarthy complexions. Meanwhile, Admiral Crusty has to decide how far he can go in rescuing his boys and possibly risking those delicate international peace agreements.

Director Moore and his team do a good job with the aerial action, especially the scenes where Russian-made SAM missiles are chasing our boys through the skies. And there is an amusingly bizarre moment where a teenage Bosnian fighter who wears an Ice Cube sweatshirt gives Burnett a mini-lecture on hip-hop culture.

Mostly, however, "Behind Enemy Lines" is pro forma stuff, so much so that you start to wonder why no fetching femme resistance fighter materializes to help the Americans on the ground. As a director, Moore is like an energetic puppy who's all over you all at once. You admire his energy, and it's awfully hard to get angry at such high spirits, but you can't help but wish he'd calm down just a bit.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for war violence and some language. Times guidelines: Most of the action isn't overly graphic, but there are depictions of mass graves.

'Behind Enemy Lines'

Owen Wilson...Burnett

Gene Hackman...Reigart

Joaquim de Almeida...Piquet

David Keith...O'Malley

Olek Krupa...Lokar

A Davis Entertainment Company production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director John Moore. Producer John Davis. Executive producers Stephanie Austin, Wyck Godfrey. Screenplay David Veloz and Zak Penn. Story James Thomas & John Thomas. Cinematographer Brendan Galvin. Editor Paul Martin Smith. Costumes George L. Little. Production design Nathan Crowley. Supervising art director Patrick Lumb. Set decorator Mario Ivezic. Running time 1 hour, 46 minutes.

In general release.

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