Testosterone Poisoning

Here's an un-fun compendium of manly action-movie clichés.

Behind Enermy Lines, the new Saving Private Ryan-lite rescue saga with Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson, is an oddly telling artifact of the world before September 11. I don't think it would have been particularly engaging before the disaster, but it's hard to say--so much has changed.

What is clear is that right here, right now, a by-the-numbers, testosterone-pumped military action flick set against the desperate final days of a very nasty, very recent war (the Bosnian conflict) just ain't big fun on Saturday night.

Explosions, situation rooms, ruined limbs, heaps of corpses, facial cuts, simulated concussion fronts, woo-woo military technology--the time in which these were good for two hours of amusement seems very far away.

Nothing could have saved this movie from the irony of history, but no matter when Behind Enemy Lines had been released, believable characters would have added something, suspense would have been nice and a female presence welcome. Jets and guns are neat, but finally limited. Even really hard-guy war movies need women, at least offstage: Private Ryan had a mom, and Tom Hanks got to pine for his wife. But our hero here--played acceptably by Wilson--only gets a photo- and trophy-ensconced movie-dad, and not even a reference to a girlfriend. We are in deepest, darkest Guyville.

Some degree of trust in the audience's ability to follow anything beyond cinematic cliché would have also been helpful--the plot, storyboarding and dialogue might have been put together by Microsoft from a database of Westerns, war and action flicks. Worse, anytime anyone has a thought, he states it, or flashes back to the event that inspired it, or, usually, both. This is unfortunate since, in the weeks since September 11, willful stupidity has suddenly gone out of fashion, even among action-movie audiences.

So. We start off aboard a big carrier "Somewhere in the Adriatic Sea"--"Sea" is specified because the filmmakers aren't sure we know what the Adriatic is, even though we can see it's something you can run an aircraft carrier around--populated by restless flyboys who signed up "To storm the beach at Normandy and punch a Nazi in the mouth," but who're stuck playing dumb jokes and eating Jell-o. (This movie has some of the weirdest product placements ever. Do all renegade Serb generals drive Mitsubishi SUVs? Does that mean I should? I mean, the Taliban likes Toyotas. And is it a good thing that a hollow-eyed Muslim girl gives the thirsty downed airman Coke when he asks for water? Beats me.)

Back to our story. The Navy's mission is almost over, which for some reason makes handsome young navigator Lieutenant Burnett (Wilson) and his less good-looking pilot (Gabriel Macht)--guess which one dies right off the bat?--even squirrelier than usual. A gruff but fatherly admiral (Hackman) takes personal notice of Burnett's crummy attitude, which gives you an idea of how little there is to do onboard.

"You should thank God we're not at war," he upbraids Burnett, and we, the audience, wince as one.

Then Burnett and the pilot are shot down--easily the film's best sequence--over a supposedly peaceful Bosnian countryside, and back at the ship the officers stand tensely around the situation room, bemoaning the rough terrain, unpleasant weather and crazy hatreds of the locals. More flinching in the aisles: The rolling mountains and stately woods of Slovakia--where the outdoor scenes were filmed--look like Regent's Park compared to what we've seen of Afghanistan, and the pale-eyed killers are strictly local maniacs doing a little genocidal mopping up.

Frustration over America's inability to help, to have prevented the mass graves from being dug in the first place, plays here as mere background for the nonstop heroics of the laughably bullet-proof blond hero, who takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin' while being shot at by hundreds of crack marksmen and galloping for umpteen miles through territory mined by every working piece of ordnance in Eastern Europe.

(Much of the audience at last Tuesday's screening was giggling about this on the way out of the theater and into the cold night. "Oh, right," one guy said, "Every time he shoots he offs some dude, but even the sharpshooter guy can't ever hit him." So sad, such skepticism in the young.)

The movie does evoke a sense of dread now and then, but it's mostly by association--the scary woods reminded me of Giancarlo Giannini witnessing a mass execution under the pristine German firs in The Seven Beauties, and of Lena Olin, a concentration-camp survivor in Enemies: A Love Story, lounging around a cottage in the Catskills and saying, "I can't get used to it. All these trees and no Nazis."

The most harrowing bits of an urban warfare sequence are lifted--right down to the handheld camerawork and sounds of panic-breathing--straight out of Welcome to Sarajevo, a film in which no one is bulletproof. In moments like these, the terror of death comes close, but here it feels like one more cinematic trick. Mostly, Behind Enemy Lines treats war as a video game--you've got your Terminator-esque magic-vision snap-zooms, your heavily blued-out lighting (real men have no time for the red end of the spectrum) and your muscular, Uzi-like edits.

And the war here isn't hell, it's fun. Or it was.

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