Thursday, March 31, 2011

Enemy at the Gates Movie Review

This review was written in March 2001 and is presented here for the first time.

Jude Law is an actor who exudes tremendous energy in any role he takes. He became a star and earned an Oscar nomination in The Talented Mr. Ripley as an American playboy living the high life in the south of Italy. In Enemy at the Gates, a new film by Jean-Jacques Annaud, he plays a Russian soldier during WWII elevated to hero status by his skills as an expert marksman. In every scene, Law boils with intensity and sinks deep within the story.

The story (based loosely on fact) is of a young soldier in the Russian army helping a tired nation fend off the Nazi regime at the Battle of Stalingrad. The opening battle sequence will warrant comparisons to Spielberg's harrowing invasion of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan. Both are bloody and seem to be completely futile attempts at victory even though we know that the Allies won at Normandy and that the Russians halted the German advance at Stalingrad.

Out of the chaos of battle emerges a solitary man, Vassili Zaitsev (Law), who impresses Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), his superior officer, by picking off five Nazi officers in a matter of seconds. Danilov uses a Russian propaganda newspaper to exalt Vassili as a hero for the nation, assuring the people a victory. After becoming a successful sniper and after having killed dozens of Nazi officers, Germany sends its own top sniper Major Koenig (Ed Harris).

At this point early in the film, the war comes to serve as a backdrop for the game of wits that plays out between Vassili and Koenig. Vassili loses confidence, telling Danilov he can't win against Koenig, who he believes to be the better sniper. But Nikita Kruschev (Bob Hoskins) is the presiding officer in Stalingrad and insists that the people need Vassili and that Stalin believes in him.

The largest flaw in the film is a love triangle between Danilov, Vassili and Tania (Rachel Weisz), a young local woman who aids in the war effort. Danilov falls for her, but the other two are obviously fated to fall in love. The romance, often reeking of schmaltz seems to be fitted in only to fill the space between the scenes of Harris and Law facing off against one another. And those scenes are truly great. Annaud really develops the layout and landscape of the destroyed city. We know where the Russian camp is in relation to the battlegrounds, we understand how Vassili moves around in secret.

Watching Harris and Law engaged in a battle where neither man sees the other is tense and exciting. Each actor portrays the different styles of the two characters deftly. Koenig is calm, patient, skilled and intelligent. He can sit still for hours just waiting for his enemy to reveal himself. Vassili is skilled but flawed.  He knows he is not as good as the other man at the art of sniping. But he is more clever in outsmarting him. It's like watching a remarkable chess match.

It is unfortunate that a film with so many great moments will enter the realm of the forgotten before the end of the year. It is unfortunate that the screenwriter felt the need to mire it down with an unnecessary romantic subplot.

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