The running man

Aviator chases redemption over dangerous ground.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES

directed by John Moore with Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman opens Nov. 30 at Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others

UNDOUBTEDLY INSPIRED by the 1995 downing and rescue of Spokane-raised Air Force Captain Scott F. O'Grady in Bosnia, Behind Enemy Lines goes that dated scenario one better. Instead of an earnest young American lad who keeps his head under pressure and later speaks in wholesome sound bites on Larry King Live, Navy Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is a whiny smart-ass chafing at NATO restrictions on reconnaissance flights over the war-torn Balkans. He wants to fight, he tells us—not be some kind of ineffectual cop. (The phrase "keeping our hands tied" is not employed in Lines, but you'll swear you heard it.) Plainly Burnett, whose nickname, "Longhorn" is painted on his F-18 Top Gun-style, needs a Good Talking To.

It's a dilemma familiar from any jingoistic World War II flick: the basically decent but cocky kid in the platoon who voices the doubts that others keep silent. Most recently, it was the Ed Burns role in Saving Private Ryan; here, instead of Tom Hanks, we have Gene Hackman as the sage father figure who'll eventually straighten the kid out. After all, he's just a little mixed up, a bit of a hothead, a cowboy, a maverick, a loose cannon, maybe—gasp!--not enough of a team player.

That soon changes once Burnett's on the ground and eluding savage Serbian militiamen. (These guys are so swarthy and irredeemably evil that they probably fire their AK-47s in the air to celebrate, say, a rerun of Frasier.) Trying to organize a rescue mission back aboard his aircraft carrier, the Admiral (Hackman) has his hands tied (oops!) by a nefarious NATO overseer of unspecified foreign nationality. As a result, Burnett has to run a marathon through foggy forests while evading his pursuers, pausing only to receive regular words of support from the Admiral.

NOW THAT'S ENOUGH, right there, for a good action movie, and Lines is certainly a better action movie than the current Spy Games. It also comes at a moment when the red-blooded public certainly wants patriotic war films with unambiguous endings. Chances are good, then, that Lines will thrive at the box office, since it only begins with the cynicism that marks Games' disillusioned post-Cold War coda. Both films pointedly hate The System and celebrate The Individual, but Lines finally reconciles the two to general flag-waving effect.

Shot by some cinematographer-turned-TV-commercial-director, Lines owes a lot to Games director Tony Scott (Top Gun), which means both fancy camera effects and an impossibly dumb script. With countless circular tracking shots, plenty of Saving Private Ryan-influenced bullets-and-mud sequences, step printing, freeze frames, variable camera speeds, and CGI explosions, Lines is merely a martial fantasy that squanders its best asset: Wilson.

The guy demonstrated his comic acting chops in Shanghai Noon, Meet the Parents, and Zoolander, and he's also the co-writer of The Royal Tenenbaums (also with Hackman, arriving Dec. 21), Rushmore, and Bottle Rocket, so why not give him the freedom to rewrite Lines' assembly-line script? His part is so square, and Lines is so derivative, that the whole shoddy enterprise could've been revamped for laughs. After all, this is a film where a Serb executioner offers a final cigarette—to himself!--before pulling the trigger, where our hero finds a warehouse protected by 100 mines with trip wires but doesn't look inside to see what's so valuable, where he's repeatedly, miraculously delivered from danger by simply cutting to the next scene of him running through the forest. (What happened? One minute Burnett's hanging from a pipe over a precipice ࠬa Wile E. Coyote clinging to the tiny branch over the canyon; the next he's, well, running through the forest again.)

But why should Wilson bother soiling his pen with what is, essentially, a 98-minute-long military recruiting commercial? As his character observes early in Lines, "I can not wait for this shit to be done."

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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