"One Rule: Evade And Survive" blare the posters for Behind Enemy Lines, a statement which should serve as an apt warning to warfilm fans: avoid this flick like an anti-personnel mine. Fraught, relentless and wit-free, this tedious actioner uses the brutal conflict in the former Yugoslavia as the backdrop for a chase movie. And a pretty lacklustre one at that.
This isn't the first film to focus on the battle for the Balkans. First came Michael Winterbottom's heavy-going Welcome To Sarajevo, and then dour, thought-provoking Dennis Quaid drama Savior. But while Savior was helmed by a Serb and produced by a Vietnam vet, Behind Enemy Lines is directed by commercials hotshot John Moore and produced by the man behind Dr Dolittle 2...
Moore landed the gig after production bigwigs were wowed by an advert he produced for Sega. Which pretty much tells you what you need to know about his directorial style. This is a man for who too much is never enough. Coming on like Tony Scott on uppers, he's not content to use Saving Private Ryan-style elliptical photography in just the combat scenes. Oh no. Every scene WHOOSH is blighted FIZZ by some ZOOM camera trick. The directorial pyrotechnics betray an unjustified lack of faith in the story, which casts Owen Wilson as a disgruntled navy flier stuck in the titular predicament after being shot down over the demilitarised zone in Bosnia. Gene Hackman's gruff Admiral wants to go in after him, but the pesky UN won't let him - leaving the unfortunate lad to try and elude sundry Serbian army goons and Vladimir Mashkov's grim assassin.
It's a pretty simple tale, which could have formed the basis of a taut, interesting thriller, with Hackman battling his conscience (which is more important: one man, or the peace process?) while Wilson fights on the ground. But Moore rarely varies the pace, rattling along at a monotonously breakneck speed, never allowing any suspense to build. Wilson is all too aware that this is his shot at serious stardom, delivering a somewhat self-conscious performance, not helped by the hopelessly clunky dialogue ("They killed my pilot because we took pictures of the graves. And I'm going to go and get 'em so he didn't die for no reason"). His John McEnroe style reaction to a failed a rescue attempt, meanwhile, ("You've got to be shitting me!") sees the Zoolander star being unintentionally hilarious.
The politics are also unsettling. At a time when the American government are quite clearly not going after Serbian war criminals (killers of Muslims, incidentally), it's taking the piss for a film-maker to produce a flag-waving, self-aggrandising actioner that trumpets the US role in bringing a fictional warlord to justice, and then presents it with closing credits captions that make it seem like a true story. Even if this isn't deliberate cultural imperialism, it's certainly cultural idiocy. But, hell, they'll love it in Iowa.
A potentially thrilling set-up is squandered through ostentatious direction and shoddy writing in this politically crass, occasionally preposterous, war flick. Makes Top Gun look like Apocalypse Now.