Last week, Sylvester Stallone announced that he was developing a fourth installment in the Rambo franchise. John Rambo is going head-to-head with the Taliban. Not a joke, but I laughed.
“Why would anyone be so foolish as to make a film about a complicated, touchy issue rooted in international relations and passionate religious beliefs, in which the hero kills his enemies, regardless of — anything,” I asked. “What a terrible thing, to try to boil down the current ‘war’ to a game of cowboys and Indians, good guys versus bad guys!”
Stallone, unfortunately, has been beaten to the punch.
“Behind Enemy Lines,” an insulting, puerile war film, pits America against the world, without any real concern as to why. It’s not just a bad film on its own merits, it’s a bad film to release right now, as the urge to draw lines in the sand and divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” is at a high. It should be taken out of theaters and locked up forever, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It is dangerous.
The film is a contradiction of style and substance.
It begins as Lt. Chris Burnett laments how dull his life is as a Navy pilot and how he wishes he could see action. Played by usually endearing wise-ass Owen Wilson, Burnett seems a sendup of the disaffected modern teenager, a member of the MTV generation with a bad case of ADD. Wilson’s Burnett is not noble or even smart. He’s a stupid kid looking for a fight.
For a minute there, “Behind Enemy Lines” seems as if it has something to say about these young men and women who fight our wars and why they’re interested in fighting. Is it to ensure the spread of democracy worldwide and fight for a free world, or is it — well — fun.
Therein lies the contradiction. The filmmakers at once recognize that their main character is a bored fool who doesn’t know or even care why he’s fighting, and yet it is a film made FOR young men just like Burnett. It panders to the very audience it lampoons. It is a war film for the MTV generation — 90 minutes long, pointless gadgets, a rap-rock soundtrack, product placement, pyrotechnics and no plot.
It’s as if the film is directed BY Burnett, or any of the aggressive, stupid young men he represents. It is an aggressive, stupid film — an extended music video, just like all the rest of the films targeted at youth these days.
The difference is that it is not, like the rest of the bubblegum films released today, harmless. It is harmful.
As the title suggests, Burnett’s plane, on a routine reconnaissance mission — which, for some reason, is on Christmas day — is shot down somewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Burnett finds himself unwelcome, well, behind enemy lines.
Who is the “enemy” of the title, you may ask? Who, of the many players in the ongoing strife in Eastern Europe, dislikes Burnett enough to shoot at him for almost an hour and a half?
Don’t look for your answers in the film. Until an hour and 15 minutes in, when it is revealed that the grimacing, cigarette smoking, one-note villains are actually a band of Muslim radicals, we do not know whom Burnett is fleeing. It seems the filmmakers don’t really want us to know or care. Early on in the film, a disenchanted, sulking Burnett, looking like his dad just told him he can’t borrow the car to go see “Behind Enemy Lines” at the multiplex, quips: “We all want to punch a Nazi in the face on the beaches at Normandy, but can’t.”
No one’s a Nazi anymore, it seems. Nazis are such good bad guys. They’re pure evil, and everyone loves watching them die on screen. If you’ll notice, the only pro-war movies made these days are about World War II, because after that, there haven’t been any bad guys we can feel good about hating so much. Man! If only there were still Nazis! If only things were black and white!
Then the film goes ahead and introduces a nameless character, who, for his ruthlessness and sneer, might as well be Adolf Hitler himself — although we never learn exactly WHY he’s bad or what he’s fighting for. Even though he’s not a Nazi, the film makes him as bad as one, because that’s exactly what Burnett wanted, and what, the filmmakers assume, its audience wants too.
“Behind Enemy Lines” has no goal as lofty as enlightening its audience or shedding any light on the complex web of bad blood in Bosnia, which we may have heard about if we’ve ever watched the news or read the paper. The filmmakers hope that you have done neither. “Behind Enemy Lines” is an action movie. It merely wants to entertain.
It doesn’t even do that. Aside from being ill-conceived, wrong-headed, and completely corrupt in its most basic thematic elements, it’s also boring.
Potentially exciting action sequences fizzle, thanks to the focusless direction of John Moore. Moore is so inept at shooting an action sequence that he effectively sabotages his own fireworks with bizarre pop cinematography. The look of the film borrows equally from “Saving Private Ryan” and a Busta Rhymes video — and doesn’t miss a cliche between the two. For instance, Moore apparently believes that any bad scene can be remedied if played it in flashy fast-forward.
It goes without saying that whenever a villain walks across the screen, he does so scowling in super slow motion. That way we know he’s the villain, right?
If Rambo 4 were released today and the villains were all Arab Muslims, members of the Taliban, and they were mowed down as indiscriminately and gleefully as they are in “Behind Enemy Lines,” there would be protests.
Does it make a difference that the hero of this film kills off swarms of Bosnian Muslim radicals and flies off into the sunset, righteous?
Oh, and Gene Hackman’s in it. And he also sucks.