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Enemy at the Gates

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Enemy at the Gates

Starring: Jude Law, Ed Harris
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: March 2001
Genres: Action, Drama, Romance, War

*Also starring: Ron Perlman, Gabriel Thompson, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins, Matthias Habich, Eva Mattes

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I was in high school I had a choice of trying out for the rifle team or the cross-country squad. The former seemed like a less taxing option, so I took careful aim at the target and fired. So did my fellow sophomores, who were also out to get a varsity letter for what was called for purposes of the school yearbook a sport. I didn't make the rifle team, but I did make the running squad and to my credit, I finished every race on the 3-1/2 mile course, over inclines and knolls. But to this day I don't understand the rifle bit. What did it take to hit the bullseye like half of my competition? I didn't drink, smoke, or do drugs and had 20/20 vision corrected. My hand was steady, my motivation unimpeachable. Now, let's a telescopic sight to the gun --such as existed even in the days of ancient history (World War II)--and you can spot the enemy in the cross hairs. What could be easier? You have steady hands and a penetrating blue eyes. What makes one guy a sniper first class while the rest of us miss a target the size of a large head? This question is unanswered in Jean-Jacques Arnaud's strikingly photographed story of the Battle of Stalingrad, involving combat that would change the course of the war and lead to the ultimate victory of the Soviet Union over Germany--in much the way the Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of our own War for Independence. According to the story jointly scripted by Alain Godard and the director, the entire course of the war was decided High Noon style, but a single bullet from the gun of a distinctly hawk-eyed sharpshooter.

What gives "Enemy at the Gates" a particular distinction is not only that it's about World War II, a subject that Steven Spielberg revived with his far superior and more involving, realistic and non-mushy "Saving Private Ryan," but that no Americans are involved in the action. (Will a stateside audience be drawn to the box office? We'll see by Sunday.)

In an attempt to appeal to women and to youthful filmgoers who might consider this a date movie, Annaud throws in a love triangle that leads the guy who never had a chance to erupt in a jealous rage that could have cost the West the war but who, we expect, will redeem himself soon thereafter. Leave out the romantic slush and Annaud could have cut the movie's 131 minutes to a fast-paced 95 while giving heartthrob Jude Law a chance to play a Soviet Gary Cooper to the Third Reich's most illustrious gunman. The movie merits an audience for two of its motifs: one showing the horrors of the battlefield, particularly the opening shots of a Soviet led, suicidal, "Gallipoli"-like charged against well protected and heavily armed German forces; the other an intriguing chess game between two shooters of about equal ability and cleverness.

As for the story behind the dramatic activity: Vassili (Jude Law), an almost illiterate shepherd from Urals who as a kid was trained by his dad to shoot wolves preying on the flock, develops remarkable skill with his rifle and, once baptized by the fire of the big war he gets the attention of a political officer, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) for picking off five Germans in the midst of battlefield anarchy. The poetic Danilov proves that the pen deserves a place next to the sword by writing about this hero in terms that could embarrass even a film publicist--thereby reviving the morale of the entire Soviet Union. Vassili, an aw-shucks guy who simply does not have the confidence ascribed to him by the journalist, knocks off five Germans, becoming the pride of Nikita Khruschev (Bob Hoskins), prompting the Germans to send their own best marksman, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to take him out.

The latter half of the film is taken up by a cat-and-mouse game between the two people, each respectful of the other's abilities, each using his wit as much as his shooter's eye to corner the other and release him with a single bullet. An eight-year-old Russian kid, Sacha (Gabriel Marshall- Thomson), wise beyond his years, is the only human being who knows both marksmen, as he has been shuttling back and forth giving away secrets to the German major in return for chocolate.

While the women around me said that they couldn't take their eyes from Jude Law, Ed Harris is the real prize with a controlled performance as a Nazi major. Harris's Konig shows his humanity in his conferences with the kid, superimposed by a steely determination to win the war singlehandedly for the Fuhrer. Rachel Weisz as Tania, a Russian-Jewish combatant with a fluent knowledge of German, is courted by the Jewish Danilov as well as by Vassili--but by never at any point giving Danilov a chance to win her heart, Annaud strips away the possibility of surprise. The focus changes from the gunplay to the courtship, even tossing in the obligatory sex scene--that takes place amid the mud and slime of the barracks at Stalingrad with the two lovers surrounded by grunts (while adding their own).

The war is shown in part as a battleground between two ideologies, Nazism and Communism--which as practiced by the century's two most notorious butchers, Stalin and Hitler, are alike in many ways. Two Soviet combatants, Koulikov (Ron Perlman) and Danilov, wax cynical about Stalin's vision, insisting that there's no such thing as The New Man which Communism is supposed to engender, nor can an individual's talents and jealousies be uprooted by some government- imposed dogma. Amen to that. Lose the romance. Save the picture.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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