Grade: C

The current wave of patriotism may bolster the public reception for this high-octane combat tale that’s the feature debut of Irish commercials whiz John Moore, but “Behind Enemy Lines” is actually a rather unsettling piece of work. It brings together a number of quite disparate elements that don’t merge very comfortably: one part is the “callow-youth-finds-maturity” hokum familiar from innumerable World War II movies, another is a chase narrative, and a third is a purportedly serious (though terribly unshaded) commentary on the conflict in Bosnia–to which is added a dollop of all-too-easy cynicism about the dangers of placing U.S. military resources under the aegis of international entities like NATO or the UN. Technically the picture’s an odd hybrid, too. On the one hand, the aerial sequences (the hero is a navy jet navigator serving aboard an aircraft carrier) suggest a Jerry Bruckheimer opus, as do the many episodes involving high-tech satellite equipment and flashing computer screens. But the on-ground sequences in the Bosnian forests have a grimly realistic feel, the colors all dark blues and greens and the editing carefully calibrated to impart an almost documentary, newsreel-like ambience, while the moments showing the misery of the Moslem minority blend dark humor with the most simplistic political subtext. The pursuit episodes–our guy is being hunted by a bunch of Serbian thugs, armed with the most up-to-date equipment–are, however, almost comically over-the-top, so outrageously incredible in their succession of near-disasters and last-minute escapes and so splashily choreographed that an unsympathetic viewer might be forgiven for concluding he had stumbled into a live-action version of a Road Runner cartoon or an elaborate video game. (Matters aren’t helped in this respect by the one-note portrayal of the Serbian pursuers, the leader of whom is a standard-issue malevolent paramilitary type, who assigns the job of finding our guy to an emaciated, emotionless tracker who comes across like a cross between the Indian scouts of old westerns and a Balkan version of The Terminator.)

The set-up for “Behind Enemy Lines” is all too simple. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is a wise- cracking Navy aviator serving aboard a US carrier from which reconnaissance missions are sent over Bosnia. (The conflict is in its final stages, with NATO troops set shortly to withdraw in accord with a recent agreement.) Burnett is tired of fly-overs that seem pointless–he wants to see real action; this puts him in dutch with the ship’s gruff commander, Admiral Reigert (Gene Hackman), who thereupon assigns him and his pilot Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) to an unwanted holiday mission on Christmas. Somehow the plane goes off course (something that seems implausible, given the way the script otherwise swoons rhapsodically over all the service’s high-tech equipment) and winds up filming evidence of a Serb massacre of Muslims that, if revealed, could derail the peace plan. This leads the snarling Serb commander, Lokar (Oleg Krupa) to order the plane shot down. The crew bails out, but Stackhouse is brutally executed, sending Burnett running toward a safe haven for pick-up; he’s pursued by the Serbs (particularly tracker Vladimir Mashkov), who rightly fear that if he reveals what he’s seen, the agreement will be scuttled. So does the NATO official in charge of naval affairs, Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida), who forbids any provocative action on Reigert’s part that might endanger his troop withdrawals. As a result Burnett is forced to run a gauntlet of obstacles to reach his rescue point, always closely followed by the Serbs. It will come as no surprise, though, that in the end Reigert has to do an end run around Piquet and muster his men in a daring operation to snatch up his boy from the jaws of disaster–in the sort of rah-rah, guns-blazing, copter-blades-whirling slam-bang finale that will provide a decided adrenalin rush, provided that you don’t think about the absurdity of it all. And in a final patriotic flourish, Burnett tears up a letter of resignation he’d earlier sent to Reigert.

Obviously “Behind Enemy Lines” is a piece of jingoistic claptrap, but one expertly calculated to appeal to viewers’ emotions, particularly at the present moment of national crisis. Of course, such basically prefabricated material doesn’t afford much opportunity for thespian accomplishment. Wilson runs decently enough, but except for the first twenty minutes or so, the picture doesn’t provide a great deal of leeway for him to do his deadpan slacker shtick; in the latter stages one mostly notices how his character sprints through every imaginable sort of explosion and muck with barely a scratch (the all-too-obvious break to his nose having occurred far earlier). Hackman pretty much walks uneventfully through his by-the-numbers tough guy, as does David Keith as his loyal aide. Lokar and Mashkov snarl impressively as the villainous Serbs, and Macht makes a likable victim (he’s one of those characters that might as well have “dead meat” emblazoned on his chest at his first appearance); but De Almeida seems ill-at-ease as the officious NATO admiral. (Perhaps if he weren’t forced to recite his lines in halting English…).

Technically the picture is a slick affair, with a glossy production design by Nathan Crawley and moody photography from Brendan Galvin. (The music score by Don Davis, on the other hand, is strictly generic.) Moore demonstrates that he knows well how to push all the right buttons without worrying about depth–a quality that may succeed in placing him in the Michael Bay class. In fact “Behind Enemy Lines” could pass for a Bruckheimer-Bay movie if it had less ambition to significance and bigger explosions. That’s not intended as a compliment.