Gene Hackman in "Behind Enemy Lines"

The title is "Behind Enemy Lines," but it might as well have been "Be All That You Can Be." An unembarrassed, high-octane demonstration of the virtues of a U.S. military with a mission, the latest war pic from 20th Century Fox couldn't be better timed to fit the popular mood.

A correction was made on May 17, 2004.

an Be.” An unembarrassed, high-octane demonstration of the virtues of a U.S. military with a mission, the latest war pic from 20th Century Fox — a studio with a proud tradition in this field — couldn’t be better timed to fit the popular mood, especially a mood imbued with a building sense of victory in present-day Afghanistan. The fantasy behind the bloated pic from tyro helmer John Moore and writers David Veloz and Zak Penn is that the focused purpose defining the current war is actually applied to the muddled international mess that was the war in Bosnia. As gray as the backstory’s real politics may be, the conflict on screen couldn’t be more black-and-white, ultimately reducing a dizzyingly complex civil war situation into a visual effects-laden, cat-and-mouse cartoon. A rushed release from 2002 to the holiday season is a marketing masterstroke that will deliver explosive B.O.

As he cools his heels along with his mates on the USS Carl Vinson during a peacekeeping mission off the Balkan coast, fighter jet navigator Lt. Burnett’s (Owen Wilson) voiced yearnings for genuine battle already sound quaint in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere. Although Veloz and Penn’s script has crossed signals from the start — Burnett is a big kid who likes playing football on the Vinson’s deck, and at the same time is depicted as a grunt with the Vision Thing — the itchiness Burnett feels is the same kind of confused yearning heard among the dusty soldiers of “Three Kings.”Actually, the war is on hold, since the so-called “Cincinnati Accord” has just been inked by warring Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, and no armed maneuvers can continue while the peace details are worked out on the ground. Burnett must have taken those TV recruitment commercials seriously, though, and just to drive the point home, rock ‘n’ roll rumbles under everything he does, while his commanding officer, Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) is his paternal boss practicing tough love.

When Burnett hands in his request to leave the service, Reigart reviews his list of run-ins with MPs, and considers his complaints so much immature whining. Both, predictably, are in for a wake-up call.

Moore’s background in musicvideos and commercials and influence from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of filmmaking is all too apparent from the first cranked-up track-shots-on-speed takes of the big ship and our hero, but nothing in these noodlings or the standard-issue set-up prepares viewers for the spectacular action sequence at the 20-minute-mark that really sets the movie into full motion.

Reminded by supreme NATO Admiral Piquet (Joaquim de Almeida) that he’s on a short leash, Reigart orders a simple photo reconnaissance mission. It falls to Burnett and his pilot buddy Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht) — during Christmas Eve, no less — but routine collapses when Burnett spots Serb activity in what should be a demilitarized zone. The camera on their F-18 records Serb troops, arms and, worst of all, a killing field, and right away, the Serbs fire heat-seeking missiles at the jet. What follows is a thrilling dogfight, with the F-18 pair doing their Chuck Yeager best to elude the missiles, until one clips the wings and sends the crew into a terrifying drop to the ground.

It’s a jolting coup de theatre, and one that the movie never tops. Stackhouse, downed by a broken leg, is at the mercy of the ruthless Serbs, as Burnett, trying to reach high ground to radio for rescue, witnesses his buddy’s execution. The entire Balkan conflict now comes down to Burnett — who eludes more bullets than even a Hollywood superhero has any right to do — vs. evil Serb commander Lokar (Olek Krupa), his tenacious marksman known only as Tracker (Vladimir Mashkov) and what looks like half the Serb army.

To make matters worse for Burnett, Reigart is hamstrung by the international accords from sending in a U.S. rescue squad anywhere near where he’s fleeing. Though the executive battle between Reigart and Piquet is meant to carry heavy political meaning, it’s dramatized, despite Hackman’s determined efforts, in the clunkiest manner possible, and it tends to only interrupt the suspense and pace of Burnett’s race across Bosnia.

Unfortunately, Moore’s staging alternates unevenly between a strong grasp of suspense and a total surrender to the thinking that seeks the biggest possible bang. What could have been an emotionally draining episode as Burnett finds himself in a field of land mines ends up being a crude set piece to show off a domino-like string of explosions.

On the other hand, Moore captures the pure chaos of urban warfare as effectively as anything since Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” in a startling sequence involving a Muslim enclave that reveals itself as a bombed-out shopping mall.

It’s clear that any action-oriented thesp could have handled the Burnett role, since Wilson is given few moments beyond the opening section to give his own comic flavor to the character. What Moore and Co. truly could have used was Wilson the writer, since the various attempts to bring a sense of off-kilter fun and even satire to the story are gravely half-hearted.

Hackman doesn’t generate his usual fire for the conflicted admiral, who, written differently, could have been a great role for the hardest-working thesp in showbiz.

The re-skedded release of “Behind Enemy Lines” contains unforeseen benefits and deficits. Beyond being in perfect tandem with the new national patriotism, it appears at the same time as Danis Tanovic’s Cannes-awarded “No Man’s Land,” also set during the Bosnian war. The great difference — and it proves to be all the difference in the world — is Tanovic’s war-battered sense of the absurd, and this pic’s unabashed flag-waving.

The rush to the holidays has visibly forced cutting corners in the effects department, producing both stunning and all-too-obviously digitized pyrotechnics. A cornucopia of optical tricks, many of them already overused in the TV ad world Moore came out of, tend to give pic an artificial feel. Just as off-putting is Don Davis’ score, which, given what’s onscreen, can only be termed bombastic.

Behind Enemy Lines

Production

A 20th Century Fox release and presentation of a Davis Entertainment production. Produced by John Davis. Executive producers, Stephanie Austin, Wyck Godfrey. Co-producer, Alex Blum. Directed by John Moore. Screenplay, David Veloz, Zak Penn.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color and prints, Panavision widescreen), Brendan Galvin; editor, Paul Martin Smith; music, Don Davis; production designer, Nathan Crawley; supervising art director, Patrick Lumb; art directors, Ivo Husnjak, Neno Pecur; set decorator, Mario Ivezic; costume designer, George L. Little; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Ian Voigt; sound designer, Craig Berkey; supervising sound editor, Berkey; visual effects, Reality Check Studios, Pixel Magic, Encore Visual Effects, Riot Pictures, Asylum Visual Effects; visual effects supervisors, Rich Thorne, Kory Jones, Raymond McIntyre Jr., Peter W. Moyer; digital effects, Pacific Title & Art Studio; miniatures, Rhythm & Hues Studio; special visual effects, Illusion Arts; animation, Bionic Digital; special effects supervisor, Garth Inns; stunt coordinator, Steve M. Davison; assistant director, Justin Muller; aerial camera, David B. Nowell; second unit camera, Stefan von Borbely; casting, Eyde Belasco, Sheila Trezise. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Nov. 19, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Burnett - Owen Wilson
Reigart - Gene Hackman
Stackhouse - Gabriel Macht
Rodway - Charles Malik Whitfield
Piquet - Joaquim de Almeida
O'Malley - David Keith
Lokar - Olek Krupa
Tracker - Vladimir Mashkov
Bazda - Marko Ogonda
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more