More politically charged than other genres, war movies often feel exploitative to me. For every classic like a 'Deer Hunter' or 'First Blood,' you can get godawful, offensive crap like 'The Marine.' Especially with modern special effects, it's easy for today's filmmakers to turn combat into a videogame, but that doesn't mean they should.
'Behind Enemy Lines' is the rare war movie that falls somewhere in the middle. Neither fish nor fowl, it doesn't seek to impart any grand political message, nor does it revel in ridiculous, over-the-top violence. Despite the endlessly plotty narrative and lots of half-hearted gobbledygook about the role of the United States in maintaining world peace, 'Behind Enemy Lines' is ultimately as powerful as an episode of 'Commander in Chief.'
The premise of "Behind Enemy Lines' is simplicity at its finest (or most idiotic, depending on your point of view). A United States aircraft carrier under Cmdr. Reigart (Gene Hackman) is running reconnaissance missions over Bosnia, while United Nations peacekeepers are on the ground attempting to bring stability to the area. During a routine fly-over on Christmas Eve, a plane piloted by Capt. Burnett (Owen Wilson) is shot down by rogue enemies hoping to cover-up their war atrocities. With Burnett on the run in hostile territory, Reigart is essentially helpless to offer rescue, due to a growing political firestorm over U.S. involvement in the region. While Reigart ponders how to assist Burnett, the soldier himself must dodge bullets, harsh conditions and unseen enemies to make it back alive. Will Reigart follow his moral compass and defy orders? Will Burnett make it home safely? Will the evil war atrocities people be exposed and captured?
'Behind Enemy Lines' isn't really much of a war movie. Instead, it's more like a cat-and-mouse thriller, sort of like 'The Fugitive' on steroids -- with Hackman in the Tommy Lee Jones role and Wilson as Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, unlike Ford, Wilson is no Indy Jones. In fact, I really couldn't take the movie very seriously because of him. I know it's not fair, but Wilson has been milking his 'You, Me & Dupree' goofy-guy shtick for so long now that his earnest turn in 'Behind Enemy Lines' seems like a put-on. I kept expecting him to crack jokes and start doing Jackie Chan chop-socky moves. At least Hackman is his usual dependable, stoic self, so even if he is phoning it in (rent due this month, Gene?) he remains the only one holding all this silliness together.
Still, 'Behind Enemy Lines' is fun. It has some cool gadgetry, the pace is almost non-stop, and director John Moore ('Flight of the Phoenix,' 'The Omen') does an efficient job in his big-screen debut. The movie also has a few truly stellar action sequences, particularly a tense walk through a minefield, and a dam sequence that is also more than reminiscent of 'The Fugitive.' 'Behind Enemy Lines' may ultimately be about absolutely nothing at all, but for every one of its meager 105 minutes, at least I was entertained.
'Behind Enemy Lines' has the distinction of being one of a select few Fox Blu-ray titles that have already hit high-def once before, as part of the studio's legendary D-Theater D-VHS line-up. And while the movie looked quite good on that now failed HD format (I haven't been able to sell my old D-VHS deck for even $50 on eBay, so I pulled it out again for a quick compare), the D-VHS version is easily matched by this Blu-ray update.
Fox offers a BD-25 single-layer, 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for this one. The source has been preserved in excellent shape. It's as sharp and slick as you would expect -- the master has been jazzed up with some digital post-processing, offering perfect blacks and very smooth, eye-popping contrast throughout. Colors are rich and robust, with clean hues that don't smear or blur-out due to oversaturation. Detail is also generally excellent, though it's so good that some flaws in the source become painfully obvious. I am surprised at how a film that is only five years old now can boast such dated effects. There is some pretty lame blue screen and miniature work here, and in one humorous sequence, Owen Wilson running through a minefield is clearly a double with a really bad blonde wig -- ah, the miracle of high-definition! The other main drawback is some obvious noise in solid backgrounds, usually long shots with large skylines. It is nothing excessive, however, and 'Behind Enemy Lines' is certainly up there with Fox's best catalog efforts on Blu-ray.
Even better than the video is the DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. It is a wonderfully immersive, finely constructed soundtrack, and its technical specs are impeccable.
The most noticeable aspect of the mix is how spacious dynamic range is -- particularly during the action scenes. Bass extends way down, delivering powerful low frequencies that will definitely give your subwoofer a workout. The clean highs are never overwhelmed, however, with dialogue holding its own in the mix and volume matching unnecessary. Surround use is also quite effective. A couple of sequences in particular could easily serve as top-notch demo material. The aforementioned minefield set piece is a real winner, with terrific use of the complete 360-degree soundfield, as is the sequence at the dam, which boasts a very inventive discrete effect involving a bullet. In virually all respects, this is a top-flight aural presentation.
'Behind Enemy Lines' originally hit standard-def DVD with a number of key video-based extras, including a featurette, deleted scenes and more. Alas, Fox has dropped most of those supplements for this Blu-ray release, retaining only the audio-only material. What a bummer.
At least the two included audio commentaries are pretty good. Up first are director John Moore and editor Paul Martin Smith. Amusingly, both profess to have head colds during the recording of this track. Despite their lessened energy, however, they deliver a very solid track. This one is far-reaching, from the usual discussion of how Moore came onboard the project, through casting and production, to more intriguing stories about the hurdles jumped to obtain assistance from the Navy, as well as the rigors some of the actors were put through to ready them for the action scenes.
Unfortunately, the second track with producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey subsequently feels a bit like old news. Though the energy level is higher, many of the stories feel repetitive. Davis and Godfrey should also be applauded, however, for delving deeper into key issues than is usual on these tracks, including the difficulty in initially getting the film greenlit at the studio, and some theories on why the film did better at the overseas box office than it did here in the States. Still, I'd go with the director track if you don't have time to listen to both.
The only other extra is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is presented here in full 1080p video.
'Behind Enemy Lines' is a routine war flick, but there is plenty of action to keep your home theater entertained, and Gene Hackman could read the phone book on-screen and I'd probably still pay to see it. In any case, Fox has delivered a decent enough Blu-ray release. The transfer and soundtrack are indeed splendid, but the removal of many key supplements from the standard-def version is a step in the wrong direction for the format, leaving the $39.95 list price feeling a bit too steep. Still, if you're a fan of the film and/or just want great video and audio, you could do a lot worse than this one.