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"ENEMY AT THE GATES"
(2001) (Jude Law, Ed Harris) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama/Suspense: A WWII Russian sniper must deal with his feelings toward his female comrade while also simultaneously trying to avoid and kill a legendary German sniper who's been sent in to kill him.
PLOT:
It's 1942 and like many other young Russians, Vassili Zaitsev (JUDE LAW) and Tania (RACHEL WEISZ) have arrived on the shores of the Volga River, ready to enter Stalingrad where German forces are doing their best to capture the war-ravaged city and further demoralize the nation. When Vassili impresses Danilov (JOSEPH FIENNES), a political officer, and saves his life with his sharpshooting skills, the native propagandist decides to glorify the soldier. He steps this up even further once visiting commissar Nikita Khrushchev (BOB HOSKINS) learns of Vassili's heroism.

The young soldier soon becomes a national hero to the locals -- including Sacha (GABRIEL MARSHALL-THOMSON), a boy who takes it upon himself to infiltrate the Germans for information -- and the bane of those German forces. Accordingly, they call in Major Koenig (ED HARRIS), a legendary aristocratic sniper, to eradicate Vassili and thus destroy the military and political icon.

From that point on and while working with other snipers such as Koulikov (RON PERLMAN), Vassili must deal with both himself and Danilov falling for Tania, all while also dealing with the seasoned and ever resourceful Koenig whose only objective is to find and kill him.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When it comes to snipers, they're a breed of people who clearly don't get much respect, either in real life or the movies. Sometimes, of course, that makes sense. After all, those who climb the bell towers and such and then shoot innocent people obviously deserve a bad rap whether they exist in the real world or just on film. Yet, and for a variety of reasons, even those who are trained by the military to pull such duty are often seen as the black sheep of their units.

By their very nature, military snipers are usually loners who lie in wait like any number of natural predators, and thus aren't visible or viewed as part of "the team." Then there's the nature of their act, the deliberate kill versus the "incidental" type that might and almost always does occur in battle. Although there's an infinitesimal line between such lethal acts, the perceived gulf between them is huge, and rarely favors the sniper.

In the world of movies, it doesn't get much better. Beyond the 1993 Tom Berenger picture, "Sniper," it's hard to think of a film where the sniper character was more than of the ancillary type. That said, the ones that do appear in war/military films are often interesting and come off as "cool" in their proficiency - as was the case in "Saving Private Ryan" - at least until they're usually blown up or shot themselves.

That's all about to change - as far as the degree of portrayal - with "Enemy at the Gates," a riveting WWII flick that features not one, but many snipers and also bucks the usual cinematic trend by focusing on the Russians, with nary an American character in sight. Based on novelist William Craig's book "Enemy at the Gates" and the portions of it that focused on the real-life exploits of Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev, the film is a throwback to the war movies of old when romance was often mixed with battle.

That's certainly not a bad idea from a marketing standpoint since straight war movies today usually aren't high on the "must see" priority lists of most women. In that regard, director and co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet," "The Bear") and fellow screenwriter Alain Godard ("The Name of the Rose," "Quest For Fire") have fashioned not just a singular romantic relationship, but something of a love triangle, although that gives the late developing situation a bit more gravity than it really exudes.

The film also contains an intriguing and potential-filled premise of two master snipers hunting for and trying to avoid each other in the middle of war-ravaged Stalingrad. In addition, and in true movie fashion, one such character is the cool and calculating seasoned master while the other is the more impulsive and green, but still highly proficient counterpart.

Thus, the stage seems set for a riveting war flick with a little bit of something for everyone and, for a great deal of its two hour plus runtime, the film delivers. That is, at least from an action and suspense/thriller standpoint. Of course, ever since "Saving Private Ryan" raised the bar for graphic war realism, every subsequent effort will have to match or exceed that film's war-related footage, and this one is no exception.

As filmed by cinematographer Robert Fraisse ("Seven Years in Tibet," "Ronin") and taking place within the Oscar-caliber sets of production designer Wolf Kroeger ("The Last of the Mohicans," "The 13th Warrior") and the marvelous score from composer James Horner ("Titanic," "Apollo 13"), the film starts off with a literal bang, showing the Russian forces forging the Volga River into Stalingrad in a sequence that many will undoubtedly compare to the opening one in Spielberg's classic war film. While it obviously doesn't match up in scope - despite the overall Battle of Stalingrad being just as pivotal in the War as the invasion of Normandy -- the sequence nevertheless works quite well.

After that exciting opening, the film delivers a number of riveting set pieces involving other battle scenes and, of course, many sniper vs. sniper moments that are impressively mounted and executed. As the two adversaries, Jude Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Gattaca") and Ed Harris ("Pollock," "The Truman Show") are perfectly cast and deliver terrific performances, even/particularly when bereft of dialogue that occasionally comes off as a bit trite.

Unlike many of their contemporary counterparts in Hollywood, the two actors have the requisite authentic looks for appearing in such period pieces, and that air of credibility helps offset Annaud's questionable decision to have the non-Russian and German performers speaking in their own voices rather than donning the appropriate accents.

It's in the romantic interludes, however, where the film falters a bit. While such a romance between Vassili and a fellow soldier - ably played here by Rachel Weisz ("The Mummy," "Sunshine") - reportedly did occur, the scenes involving that, while credible, don't play out as well as the action and suspense ones.

As a result, they rob some of the film's momentum, and ultimately get a bit too melodramatic for their own good. That's particularly true in relation to the ensuing love triangle that evolves with Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Elizabeth") as the third character, a plot development that isn't really necessary or developed fully enough to make it as effective or believable as it could have been.

It's not a horrible flaw, but the growth of that whole romance angle in the film's final act stymies some of the building sniper vs. sniper tension that should have been building uninterrupted and then culminated in a great and memorable showdown. Although there is the inevitable concluding confrontation, it's a bit of a letdown considering what preceded it and because of some questionable character behavior that belies what we had come to expect.

As far as the film's supporting performances, Ron Perlman ("Alien: Resurrection," TV's "Beauty and the Beast") is terrific as a grizzled Russian sniper; Gabriel Marshall-Thomson ("Joseph in Egypt," "Painted Lady") delivers a decent one as a young Russian boy who seems to befriend the German sniper; and Bob Hoskins ("Mona Lisa," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") creates an interesting and somewhat amusing version of Nikita Khrushchev.

Featuring some terrific battle and sniper sequences and two strong performances from Harris and Law as the adversaries, the film might not go down in the annals of cinema as one of the best war flicks, and its romantic bits aren't as effective as they should be, but overall it's certainly an often riveting, cinematic experience. "Enemy at the Gates" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed March 12, 2001 / Posted March 16, 2001


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