Plot: Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) has been in the Navy for years, but he has grown tired of the way his skills have been used of late. After a series of assignments that made him feel like a glorified security guard, Burnett has decided to move on and leave his Navy days behind him. His decision has sparked a rift between himself and Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman), who is convinced that Burnett is making a poor decision to abandon his military career. But Burnett hands in his paperwork and then heads out on a routine recon mission, to capture images of enemy installations. A snap decision to move off course to get a better view proves to be a mistake, as the plane is shot down once it crosses into a no-fly zone. While his co-pilot is killed by enemy forces, Burnett is able to escape and tries to make it to a rendezvous point, but not everyone wants to risk an international incident to ensure his survival.
Entertainment Value: Behind Enemy Lines is a predictable, standard action/thriller, but it is buoyed by some good performances and of course, the endless scenes of Owen Wilson running in dramatic fashion. The narrative is passable and based in part on the real life events around Scott O’Grady, but don’t expect an accurate historical take, as that isn’t the case. The movie has a good pace and while it moves around a lot, between Wilson’s quest for survival and Gene Hackman battling office politics, it all blends together well and never feels disruptive. The real draw here isn’t the narrative of course, but the macho, military action elements and while not a wild, over top action flick, Behind Enemy Lines is generous with the set pieces. This includes shootouts, fighter jets, helicopters, and as I mention before, a lot of Wilson running from place to place, with a serious look on his face. So a good amount of action is in here, including some large scale moments, which spice up the experience. This is still a military thriller at heart, but the action scenes do a lot to widen the film’s appeal.
While the narrative is basic and predictable, the material is elevated thanks to a better than average ensemble of talent. Owen Wilson has the lead and while this role is a departure from his usual silly personas, he is more than competent and the script is smart in how he is used. His personality is given room to come through, but he isn’t tasked to do much dramatic dialogue or emotional content, so he is a solid fit for this kind of protected role. Meanwhile, Gene Hackman shows up loaded for bear and devours his scenes with enthusiasm. He barks orders like a madman, delivering his lines with blistering fervor and makes what could have been a forgettable character one that stands out. Of course, his performance here is never subtle and some will dislike how over the top he is, but I think he’s fun to watch and gives us a memorable take on the always pissed off military leader archetype. The cast also includes David Keith, Joaquim de Almeida, Gabriel Macht. While Behind Enemy Lines isn’t a fresh take on the genre or all that memorable, it does offer solid entertainment and Hackman’s scene chewing alone makes it worth a look.