-By Daniel Eagan

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Set in the waning days of the war between Bosnia and Serbia, Behind Enemy Lines has gained unexpected resonance in light of recent events. Twentieth Century Fox accordingly moved its release date up two months to capitalize on the country's new sense of patriotism. Short of another terrorist catastrophe, it may never find a better market.

Stationed on the Adriatic Sea, troops aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson try to protect a fragile ceasefire between the Serbs and Bosnians. But Lt. Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), a hotshot navigator for pilot 'Smoke' Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht), is cynical about the U.S. mission. Admitting that he's quitting the service, he complains to his commander, Adm. Leslie Riegart (Gene Hackman), 'I'm a fighter, not a cop.'

The angry Riegart assigns Stackhouse and Burnett to a photo-reconnaissance mission on Christmas Day. A ho-hum flight turns deadly when the F-18 Hornet flies over a demilitarized zone. Serbs fire surface-to-air missiles at the jet. Stackhouse and Burnett are forced to eject when they are hit. Captured, Stackhouse is shot in the head by Sasha (Vladimir Mashkov), a sniper.

Burnett goes on the run, pursued both by Sasha and by Serbian troops. Riegart tells Burnett by radio that a helicopter will meet him at a rendezvous point. But Adm. Juan Piquet (Joaquim De Almeida), Riegart's NATO superior, won't let him assemble a retrieval force. Riegart has to leak news of Burnett's plight to the press to get approval for the rescue mission.

Burnett struggles through a dangerous landscape, at one point using the rotting corpses in a mass grave as a hiding place. He realizes that the Serbs will do anything to cover up their atrocities. Deep in enemy territory, he must find a way to retrieve intelligence data from his crashed jet, as well as signal to Riegart his new position.

Behind Enemy Lines contains some first-rate action set-pieces, in particular a harrowing sequence in which Stackhouse tries to elude missiles homing in on his jet. But other passages are curiously slack and uninvolving, especially early scenes in which Wilson must project cynicism. He is more convincing later on, although the script doesn't ask him to do much more than run through forests. The real acting takes place on board the carrier, as Hackman's Riegart wrestles with bureaucratic inertia to save a recalcitrant soldier who may not be worth the effort.

Hackman's presence and authority seem effortless, but even he can't salvage a climax that stretches jingoism and logic too far. Still, it would be foolish to underestimate the country's appetite for a film in which American resolve is tested by villainous foreigners. The filmmakers are at least honest enough to suggest that the happy ending in Behind Enemy Lines comes at a price.

--Daniel Eagan

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