War Stories 

Behind Enemy Lines' brave face, plus the state of love in Sidewalks of New York.

One ticket to Behind Enemy Lines entitles the holder to 1) an ordinary war movie and 2) the need of a barf bag.

Owen Wilson stars as Chris Burnett, a Navy pilot bored out of his skull doing next to nothing on an aircraft carrier during the Bosnian conflict. Burnett is like a kid too smart for school, unchallenged and idle enough to get into trouble. Bad behavior brings him before Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman), who slaps his hand and tells him to shape up. Burnett responds with the least amount of respect possible, repeating his desire to leave the military ASAP.

But first First, Reigart sends Burnett and another pilot on a reconnaissance mission on Christmas Day, a yank on Burnett's chain to let him know who's in charge. Burnett and pilot fly off-course, taking photos of something they aren't supposed to see. They get shot down, and while Burnett climbs a hill for better radio response, his partner is discovered and executed. A rescue of Burnett is arranged and then canceled when another admiral from the U.N. mission nixes Reigart's plan, worried that it will ruin an already shaky peace agreement. Burnett is told to make his way to a safer pick-up point. When he fusses, Reigart says, "You've been shot down; life is tough." And about to get a whole lot tougher when Burnett has to dodge a particularly determined sniper and Reigart's efforts to get his soldier out are undermined.

Snipers and weak admirals aside, Behind Enemy Lines feels nearly tension-free and peculiarly clean for a war movie. The players issue goddammits as things get thick, and when it really gets nasty, they pull out the F-word. And Burnett, too, is wholesome, not a military roughneck gung-ho to spill blood. Wilson fills the role with a good-natured charm, and the film is better for it. You root for Burnett because he's a remarkable guy for being so unremarkable. But even the movie's simple message about bravery and good vs. evil gets a little garbled in the telling. The pacing of the film, the way its elements are laid out ultimately make it more about Burnett saving his own ass.

(As for the timing of Behind Enemy Lines' release, the film gains a tiny bit more resonance: The limited violence, which would have been practically unnoticeable pre-September, now seems more horrible -- a man melted away in slo-mo by a land mine, the viscera of a crashing plane wrecking the landscape, the ruined lives of those who remain.)

The "punch" was clearly saved for the visuals. Director John Moore was picked for the gig on the strength of a commercial he did for a video game, and his background shows like panty lines. Burnett must make it from point A to point B without getting squashed, and the audience views him as a 2-D figure manipulated to go up a hill and down a hill and into a building and onto a speeding truck and so on. And while the episode in which Burnett's plane is being chased by two heat-seeking missiles is exciting, the jarring camerawork at other points is just nausea-inducing. There's nothing thrilling in needing to boot.

Though Gene Hackman appears to be in every movie made these days, he is not in Ed Burns' latest, Sidewalks of New York, the director/writer's rather bleak ode to love in the big city.

The film begins with various characters telling us how they lost their virginity. Each sounds off a tale of bad decision-making involving too much alcohol or a partner much too old or a partner much too paid to do the deed. The one sweet "losing it" story we hear has a confidence-shattering caveat. And so it goes.

The characters are: Maria (Rosario Dawson), a divorced schoolteacher squeamish about getting involved again; Ben (David Krumholtz), Maria's ex-husband, a musician and doorman desperate for affection; Ashley (Brittany Murphy), a 19-year-old college student with a self-defeating thing for married men; Griffin (Stanley Tucci), dentist, Ashley's lover, and all-round cheat; Annie (Heather Graham), Griffin's wife, who doesn't like to talk about it; and Tommy (Ed Burns), a recently dumped and available TV producer. Bringing up the rear is Carpo (Dennis Farina), Tommy's over-tanned boss and dispenser of obnoxious advice, such as cutting out "the wife and kids crap" and putting cologne where the sun doesn't shine.

As the characters enter and exit each others' lives and beds, they consult the camera to offer their philosophies on topics varying from sex on the first date to the separation of love and sex. This mockumentary set-up doesn't entirely make sense, however, given that the characters separately interviewed at the beginning of the movie meet each other later by chance. But that is neither here nor there.

Where it is is the state of love and emotion today and being decent enough to be loyal. The film is rather pessimistic, but Burns does show enough faith in human nature to give those their due, whether it's bliss or loneliness.

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