Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ December 1st 2001 ]

Owen Wilson has a face like a cake left out in the rain - in a good way. His is a kisser made for the screen, not waxy-movie-star handsome but handsome because, with all those weird angles and that twisty nose, there's always something to look at.

He has the face Brad Pitt constantly tries to give himself by breaking his own teeth and picking at his skin. So it's refreshing to find Wilson's odd face and odder sensibility - see his patented idiosyncratic quipster in Rushmore, which he wrote, and Meet the Parents, which he stole - where Pitt and Cruise usually hang out, on the playground of the mondo action movie.

In Behind Enemy Lines, Wilson plays Chris Burnett, a cocky navy pilot and all around high-fivin' white guy. In another time, Burnett might have been a Top Gun, but not in today's murky geopolitical climate. He's two weeks from quitting.

"Every soldier thinks they're going to get a chance to punch some Nazi in the face in Normandy," he says, bummed about the quell of fascism. It's peacetime, and the aviators are suffering ennui of teenage proportions. The real villain in Behind Enemy Lines is NATO, because it's boring. One gets the sense that Burnett's disgruntlement with global politics is Hollywood's; how the hell is a screenwriter supposed to make dastardly, moustache-twirling villains out of Tutsis?

In fact, there's a germ of an interesting idea here - what happens to all that hoo-ha military energy when it has nowhere to go? - but the movie skims across the one issue that could have lent it a modicum of relevance. In the end, it's just a super-realistic video game.

Burnett and his crew fly dull reconnaissance missions over a newly peaceful Bosnia. Burnett takes a spin where he's not supposed to (if the war won't come to Mohammed ...) and accidentally witnesses the shady goings-on of a Serbian rebel faction. First-time director John Moore loves blowing stuff up in incredible detail; when Burnett is shot down, even the nuts and bolts of his ejection seat grunt and pop.

Burnett's gruff but loving commanding officer, played by Gene Hackman, is ready to go in and rescue his rogue pilot, but the navy forbids any action, unwilling to risk the region's fragile peace. Moore is best known for directing a Sega video game system advertisement, and Behind Enemy Lines showcases the best, and worst, of his expertise. Wilson runs, hops and ducks through Bosnia, dodging mines like Lara Croft. But he also violates the laws of physics, climbing to the top of a mountain in about 10 seconds; possible if you're digital, impossible if you're analog, or human.

For someone who's supposed to be hiding from circling snipers, Burnett spends a lot of time flitting across open fields, imitating the von Trapps. When the flitting is done, he proceeds to sit on top of the aforementioned mountain like a cherry on a sundae, crying out to the pursuing rebel forces: Pluck me! All of this action follows the cardinal rule of gaming design - if it looks cool, do it - but it also takes you out of the movie, unravelling the suspense any good action movie requires. Wilson is game, his Texan incredulity a fair response to this barren landscape. Hackman rises above the pop psychology of his daddy role, conveying the wounded integrity of a man who has given his life to an organization he can no longer fathom.

The supporting players fare worse. What hell to be esteemed Polish actor Olek Krupa playing a Serbian sniper in a track suit, all beady-eyed with a perpetual cigarette dangling from his lips. An Officer and a Gentleman star David Keith has a bizarre role as Hackman's right-hand man, or The Guy Who States the Obvious - e.g., looking at a rainy sky: "Damn weather's sure not helping."

Moore is no master of subtlety. He uses subtitles to introduce characters, a lazy, disorienting trend that highlights a weak script. He's also overly eager to crib style from his heroes, mixing John Woo slo-mo with Saving Private Ryan herky-jerkiness. The camera work is so wonky for the final third of the film that I literally felt nauseous.

Producers are probably hoping Behind Enemy Lines will strike a chord with a newly jingoistic filmgoing public, but I doubt even the most ardent flag-wavers will buy this cheese. At one point, in the back of a pick-up loaded with civilians, Burnett asks for water. No water here, he's told, we only have (root around in backpack for product to place) - Coke! A kid in an Ice Cube T-shirt declares his love of "the hip hop," and our hero deems him worth saving.

In the delicate geopolitics of the 21st century - and in Hollywood - only the most pop culture savvy survive

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