Enemy at the Gates

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 03/16/01 04:51:07

"Sniper Sequences Overcome Many Flaws"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Jean-Jacques Annaud has become known for creating visually enthralling works of art on the screen. It’s no wonder that he was chosen to helm Wings of Courage, one of the first “features” created solely for the IMAX format. Film lovers will acknowledge his Quest for Fire and The Bear as his respective masterpieces. Quest dealt with the struggles of the caveman while The Bear encapsulated the struggle of an orphaned cub and its evasion of game hunters. Both films were unique in telling their stories with little to no dialogue and that Annaud staple has been carried throughout all of his work. It’s when his characters speak in where the problems lie.

That’s not to say that the acting in his latest film, Enemy at the Gates, is bad. Far from it. It’s just rather dull compared to the epic shots of war and the heart of the story which is the battle of two snipers during World War II. It’s Stalin vs. Hitler in the battle for Stalingrad. In this corner representing Russia we have Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a young soldier trained with the rifle since the age of five. And for Germany there’s Major Konig (Ed Harris), their personal best sharpshooter.

At a time when the Nazis were marching through Europe like a Mayday parade with artillery, Stalingrad was the final prize that could ensure victory for the goosesteppers. Vassili was one of hundreds of soldiers to be shipped in to fight the good fight (without a weapon) and one of the few to survive an opening onslaught that will remind many of Spielberg’s D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Upon discovering his handy little talent, a Soviet political officer, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), starts publishing his exploits as propaganda to boost morale. It’s this newfound fame that propels the Germans to send in Konig to put the final bullet in Vassili’s coffin and the duel begins.

The sniper sequences, and I mean all of them, are done with incredible precision and tension, arguably, the best we’ve ever seen. Vassili gets occasional company stalking his prey in the form of Ron Perlman who shows up to prove that he could seamlessly step in as Jaws in the Bond series. But its when Vassili stands alone with nothing to communicate with except his rifle that this element of the story comes to life.

Each man’s tactics are clearly defined as if they were sitting across a table over a game of Stratego. The tension that is built without a single word being uttered is an incredible achievement for any director and Annaud makes the most of every opportunity. There is a situation so amazingly choreographed involving a small barrier and a series of mirrors that is so masterfully done that you’ll wish you had a remote control in the theater to rewind it and watch it again frame-by-frame.

Unfortunately, some of the characters have to speak. So in between the sniper face-offs, we have to sit through an undeveloped romantic triangle between Vassili, Danilov and a Jewish female soldier, Tania (Rachel Weisz). Their feelings are mostly held in check (while their British accents aren’t) and half the time I couldn’t figure out who Danilov was more into, Tania or Vassili in a Mr. Ripley-style. The one relationship that does hold our interest is that between Konig and a young Russian boy, Sacha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), who worships Vassili yet works as a double agent supplying the Major with crucial information.

Ed Harris’ performance as that Major is the strongest in the film. The quiet way he talks down to the eager boy and bribes him with chocolate reminds us of the way that children were influenced by the Fuhrer into joining their ranks. Harris has a way of communicating with just his eyes a look of extreme sympathy or cold menace, reminding us of how powerful an actor he is. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well as they keep getting sucked back into that unrequited/betrayed love story. Neither Fiennes, Law or Weisz register below par, but sometimes an actor is only as good as their material. Just look at Bob Hoskins who shows up as Nikita Khrushchev not banging his shoes, but to make people “mess their pants” and to pay homage to “the boss” which with all the Communism and Nazism running rampant had me singing “Born in the U.S.A.” in my head.

As WWII films go, Enemy at the Gates isn’t nearly up to the quality of a Saving Private Ryan. It’s sort of a throwback to old school war flicks with its cartoon maps and battles peppered with love affairs and on its own level it works, despite its many flaws. The love story is unfulfilling far beyond the reaches of the character’s own hearts. The full extent of the propaganda campaign is never truly felt. Vassili may be lucky on one too many occasions from playing dead to simply falling asleep as soldiers test surrounding corpses with numerous bullets. And composer James Horner recycles just about every single one of his familiar melodies and even manages to copy the strains of John Williams’ Schindler’s List theme during Weisz’s account of her family being slaughtered by the Nazis.

So, Enemy at the Gates is not a perfect movie. But the most interesting and entertaining aspect of it is as close to perfect as they come and if you come just to see the hunters stalking their prey, you won’t be disappointed. This film has more headshots than a porno casting agency, certainly more than any film in recent memory, including Pvt. Ryan, and every one of them is powerful. Annaud excels at these calm-before-the-storm moments, even able to endow the love scene with a quiet eroticism. As with the case of this film, it’s like the theaters tell us, “Silence Is Golden.” At least until the sounds of the snipers’ rifles being cocked and fired.

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