Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Behind Enemy Lines (2001)

                “Behind Enemy Lines” is a war action movie that is loosely based on the story of Scott O’Grady.  You know as soon as the O’Grady incident had a happy ending, Hollywood was drooling over the potential entertainment value of the tale.  Unfortunately, the facts of O’Grady’s adventure were pretty tame.  What’s a screenwriter gonna do?  Hollywood did not invent the phrase “loosely based on a true story” for nothing.  Screenwriters Hussein Saade and Hadi Kaiss took the seed of the story and added a lot of water and manure to grow an action epic.  Director John Moore knew better than to let logic interfere with his debut.  The result was a crowd-pleaser that was moderately successful.

                The movie is set in the Bosnian War, so there is absolutely no danger that an American audience will recognize any historical inaccuracies.  On board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, the pilots learn about the Cincinnati Accords which will result in NATO pull-out from the conflict.  Damn, as though patrolling a no-fly zone against a Stone Age air force was not boring enough! Especially if you are a Hollywood hot shot like flight officer Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson).  He channels his inner Maverick frfom "Top Gun" to use the catapult to kick a football.  (Which, by the way, would actually destroy the football.)  This, plus the pulsating rock takeoff sequence, had me wondering if the movie was “Hot Shots! Part Trois”.  I was not totally wrong. 

                Admiral Reigert (Gene Hackman) calls Burnett in to talk him out of leaving the Navy.  Burnett is tired of being a traffic cop and the routine is boring.  Instead, he wants to be an airline pilot.  Reigert does not make Burnett cry by pointing out that a flight officer is not qualified to fly an airliner.  (Why wasn't the Burnett character made a pilot?)  Reigert tells the maverick to use his last two weeks to ponder his decision.  Perhaps something will happen to make his life less routine.
Hackman to director:  "I don't need no
stinking script!"

                In an attempt to get the movie into the Christmas movie genre, Burnett is sent on a photo-reconnaissance mission on X-Mas.  Burnett’s F-16 is shot down by two SAM missiles that chase his plane like a dog chasing a sausage flavored butterfly.  For plot purposes, pilot Lt. Stackhouse doesn’t use standard procedures to avoid the missiles so down goes the plane.  The missile firers are a Serbian paramilitary led by the Dastardly Lokar.  (As students of the Bosnian War know, the Serbian militia leaders were called Dastardly instead of General.)  Lokar has an evil lackey named Sasha that does his dirty work when his head-chopping arm gets weary.  Before you can say “chase movie”, the now solo Burnett is on the run.  (Owen Wilson must have gone to cross country boot camp to prepare for this movie.)  Would you believe that there are complications in rescuing him?  It turns out NATO is not really keen on it.  You know how politicians are in war movies.  That’s a shame because Burnett literally stumbles upon proof of war crimes.  While being chased by Lackey (actual rank) Sasha who happens to be a sniper who can’t hit Burnett when he is literally sitting on a rock.  (The script must have deflected the bullet.)  For those of you who are saying you just as soon watch the latest “Fast and Furious” if you are going to watch a chase movie, does that movie have the main character running through a booby trapped factory and then participating in a battle?  It does?  Never mind.
"What do you mean you can't pick me up because
it would be too easy?"

                It looks like the only way our insubordinate hero will be rescued is for his commander to get his insubordinate on, too.  You didn’t think Gene Hackman was going to keep his cool, did you?  And did you think the U S of A was going to let one of our boys be put through all this without some major payback?  Needless to say the movie has a patriotically happy ending, unless you are a Serb.  (The movie was accused of being too anti-Serbian war criminals.)  In fact, the release date was moved up to tap in to the desire to see Americans kick ass after 9/11.

                I will admit that the film does not claim to be based on a true story, although it clearly was inspired by the O’Grady incident (known as the Mrkonjic Grad Incident).  O’Grady certainly thought so as he sued 20th Century Fox for making it without his permission.  He particularly objected to the Burnett character's insubordination and potty mouth. ( I would like to say that O’Grady was right, but after “Top Gun” recruiting and its spawn – the Tailhook Scandal, Burnett might actually be a typical flyer.  He is certainly Hollywood's idea of a pilot. )  The suit was settled out of court.  I hope the studio did not pay him much because it is obvious his story simply gave them the idea for an action flick.  
Scott O'Grady probably did some running,
so there is that similarity

             You would have to really be up on your current events to tell what parts of the movie correspond to actual events.  (Although taking the default position that everything in the movie is bull shit would be a good idea.)  Scott O’Grady was piloting an  F-16 Flying Falcon over a no fly zone during the Bosnian War.  The no-fly zone was initiated by NATO to control the mostly Serbian forces that were battling the newly created country of Bosnia.  The Lokar character is based on a paramilitary unit leader (Zeljko Raznatovic aka Arkan) who committed war crimes.  O’Grady (he had no co-pilot) was shot down by a SAM.  He evaded capture for a week, but without the bells and whistles of the movie.  He was rescued by the Marines without incident until the outbound helicopters were missed by two shoulder-fired missiles and took some small arms fire.

                It’s easy to make fun of a movie like “Behind Enemy Lines”, but it is the type of entertainment that knows no shame.  Fourteen year old boys do not read reviews.  Mindless people and people who wants some time with their minds turned off also don’t care about reviews.  This is why the movie was successful.  It takes the tried and true action template and places it in a war setting.  It is not the first war movie to do this.  It has been done better in films like “Three Kings”, but usually the formula results in hair-pulling for war movie lovers like myself.  This is not to say the movie is terrible.  I enjoyed watching it.  Although I have to admit that part of the enjoyment was from condescension.  At one point, Burnett says that he was going Mach 3 when the missile hit.  Yeah, right!  To me it is a silly movie that keeps topping itself.

                The acting is serviceable.  Wilson and Hackman don’t have to stretch themselves.  Wilson is playing his “aw shucks” character and Hackman is military Hackman.  The villains are cartoons so the actors simply had to channel Snidely Whiplash. John Moore’s directorial debut is competent.  He makes use of the scenery of Slovakia well.  He decided to have the final scenes snow-covered so he had to use effects to achieve the look.  (This explains why the snow suddenly appears.)  He uses music to set the tone and he prods the audience continually with it.  The movie has very little slack time when it comes to the soundtrack.  He shows off with a variety of cinematography.  He has a similar kitchen sink approach to the plot as well.  One thing you can say is the action sequences are not redundant.  In the action movie community, avoiding repetition is considered the mark of an auteur.  The problem is that the movie tends to get more outlandish as it goes along.  My head was shaking by the final scene.  Surprise, Moore went on to make “A Good Day to Die Hard”.
                Will “Behind Enemy Lines” crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  Clearly, no.  It is a nice time waster and achieves its moronic check list of action tropes.  At least the viewers learn there was a Bosnian War and there were some terrible atrocities and evil individuals.  The Scott O’Grady incident is by far the most famous incident for America.   From the movie you learn the historical fact that we had a pilot shot down, he evaded capture, and was rescued.  Don’t file away anything else you “learn” from this movie.  Being the only American shot down during Operation Deny Flight might be a bit embarrassing for O’Grady.  If I was him, I would tell my grandchildren that the movie is a documentary.

GRADE  =  C-


  1. Yep you nailed when you said American don't know anything outside the US bubble. The plane was an F-18 not an F-16. But I agree this like most if not all Hollywood war films to be unrealistic to downright fantasy like this one. Btw Scott O'Grady tried to sue the filmmakers for stealing his ordeal and or no compensation etc.

    1. Thanks for the info. I think I remember that. I'm sure the producers argued that they had never heard of O'Grady. The movie tends to back that up.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.