Film of the week: Behind Enemy Lines

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Nov. 29, 2001 at 11:16 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- "Behind Enemy Lines" is a military action movie tenuously inspired by Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady, who was shot down over Bosnia in June 1995.

The script isn't much, but the video game-inspired visual style of the gifted rookie director John Moore is striking. Stars Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman often look less as if they were filmed than rendered by 3-D video chips.

Whether males will find Moore's PlayStation Mannerist aesthetic exciting or distracting probably depends on how old they are. Most women can safely skip "Behind Enemy Lines."

By hiding in the bushes for six days, eating ants and wringing drinking water out of his sodden socks, O'Grady evaded capture by the Serbs and, no doubt, the subsequent ignominy of being brought home by Jesse Jackson.

His escape was a huge story at the time. As the source material for a Hollywood action spectacular, however, O'Grady's tale always seemed too passive. "All I was, was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to survive," aw-shucksed the pilot, with commendable but accurate humility.

Some observers were cynical, though. Florence King wrote in National Review that O'Grady was "our most embarrassing 'hero' yet." An American officer "does not describe himself as 'a scared little bunny rabbit,'" King vented. "Patton would have punched him."

In reality, the hoopla over this lone downed pilot did not reflect American decadence but American strength. Although the North Vietnamese shot down hundreds of U.S. planes, our pilots have been almost invulnerable in the two decades since we figured out how to blast the radar guidance systems of enemy air defenses as soon as they try to lock on to our jets.

Still, O'Grady's ordeal could have been made into a low budget but high-tension film, because his story taps some primordial emotions. When hunted, mammals feel conflicting urges to fight, flee, or hide. You could make a nerve-racking "non-action" movie by repeatedly manipulating the audience into feeling O'Grady must do something, anything to get away from his encroaching pursuers. Instead, though, he would wisely choose just to stay hunkered down.

"Behind Enemy Lines" is the opposite of that, though. Producer John Davis had the courage to take the six-word premise -- "American flyer shot down in Bosnia" -- and junk everything else factual.

The story is by James and John Thomas (another of Hollywood's now ubiquitous brother acts), the writers of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Predator," a minor classic of this fight-or-flee-or-hide genre.

Here, they changed the central theme from hiding to fleeing. As American navigator Chris Burnett, Owen Wilson gets quite a cardiovascular workout running for his life through the Serbian sector of Bosnia.

The blonde, bent-nosed Wilson was hilarious opposite Jackie Chan in "Shanghai Noon" playing a sort of white Chris Tucker. Although a fascinating comic improviser and screenwriter (he co-wrote "Rushmore" and the much-admired upcoming "The Royal Tenenbaums"), Wilson's first lead role exercises his legs more than his talents. His character seems to have been modeled on Pac Man, with paramilitary Serbs standing in for the pursuing ghosts.

Bosnian Muslims help him out along the way. You can tell they are good because they love Elvis and Ice Cube. (Funny how helping the Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan hasn't made America terribly popular in the Islamic world. I guess Ben Franklin was right when he advised that the way to make friends is to get people to do you favors. Doing them favors just makes them resent you for being strong while they are weak.)

In the fourth of his five movies of 2001, Hackman, who must have resolved on his 70th birthday to become the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, plays the tough but caring admiral who rescues Wilson.

The film industry has been looking for a new Ethnic Group You Love to Hate to replace Germans, who, let's face it, are long past their sell-by date as Hollywood's default villains.

Will Serbs work out as their replacements? After all, the Serbs were the Designated Bad Guys in the Balkan wars. Plus, there aren't many Serbian-Americans, and , since they are white Christians, nobody cares if they complain about stereotyping.

Still, as movie villains, Serbs don't seem like promising substitutes for Nazis. It's so much more gratifying to watch some arrogant, facial tic-ridden movie German being thwarted from conquering the world.

In contrast, the morose Serbs seem to take a gloomy satisfaction in anticipating that ultimately the world will once again conquer Serbia, thus proving their conviction that everybody's out to get them.

It's just more fun to watch Hollywood heroes beat up on Nazi sadists than Serb masochists.

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