Paramount // 2001 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 19th, 2009
Some men are born to be heroes.
"Vodka is a luxury we have. Caviar is a luxury we have. Time is not."
A famed Russian sniper named Vassili Zeitsev (Jude Law, I Heart Huckabees) continues to build a reputation as one of the world's deadliest and most heroic individuals during the turbulent days of World War II. Zeitsev continues to pick off German officers on a regular basis, being championed in the press by a writer named Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love). Vassili and Danilov are close friends, but their friendship slowly but surely seems to be coming apart under the strains of love and war...they both have feelings for the same woman, a translator named Tania Charnova (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy). As time goes by, the Nazis grow increasingly frustrated with Danilov's gushing accounts of Vassili's heroic conquests. They determine that action must be taken to crush the morale of the Russian people. An equally famed Nazi sniper named Major Konig (Ed Harris, Appaloosa) is sent to Russia with a simple assignment: hunt down and kill Vassili Zeitsev. The deadly game of cat-and-mouse is on.
Enemy at the Gates begins with a genuinely impressive war sequence that is clearly inspired by Saving Private Ryan. The year is 1942, and the Battle of Stalingrad continues to be a bloody and devastating conflict. The Russians engage in poorly-organized combat with the Germans. They find themselves completely outmatched and decide to retreat. Many of those who attempt to turn back are shot by their members of their own army. "No mercy for cowards," the dissenters cry. In the wake of the battle, the film's two protagonists (Vassili and Danilov) slowly crawl across the sea of dead bodies in the hopes of making it to safety. Unfortunately, there's a large handful of German soldiers still in the vicinity. Under normal circumstances, it would be an impossible situation to get out of. However, Vassili proves to be resourceful and gifted. Using the nearby explosions to muffle the sound of his gunfire, he picks off the Germans from a distance one by one before they have time to react. It's a tremendously well-crafted sequence that starts the film on a strong note and deserves a lot of praise. These and several other tense sequences throughout the film establish Enemy at the Gates as an exceptional war drama.
There have been plenty of World War II films over the years, but most of them tend to involve the Americans or the British. There haven't been many films putting the spotlight on the conflict between Russia and Germany, perhaps partially because it's a bit more challenging to make an easy distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Nonetheless, this film gives us Russians as the protagonists. Vassili is the more interesting of the two. He steps into the role of hero with some reluctance. This isn't for reasons of modesty or lack of desire to be in the spotlight. It's mostly because he simply lacks the confidence to live up to the tall tales being told about him in Danilov's newspaper. Sure, he can pick off random German officers here and there, no problem. But when the battle between Vassili and Konig turns into a propaganda war that offers a small-scale reflection of the larger propaganda battle taking place in war-torn Stalingrad, Vassili doesn't quite feel up to the task.
The film succeeds with flying colors when offering portraits of these battles. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud handles these scenes with remarkable tension. The concept of two men engaging in an intimate personal war while a large-scale battle between two armies is raging is an interesting one. Moments that seem tilted to the advantage of one man or the other can be altered at any moment by the unexpected appearance of enemy troops or planes. The fight between these two snipers may seem a petty thing to focus on the midst of large-scale tragedy, but in a way, their little two-man war is equally important. They're fighting for the hearts and minds of their respective countries. When one man falls, so falls the confidence and hope of that man's countrymen.
The best performance in the film comes (unsurprisingly) from Ed Harris as Major Konig. He is a quiet and calm man, a hunter who stalks his prey with merciless logic and precision. He does not allow his personal feelings to distract him from the task at hand, a strength Vassili does not share. Vassili may well be a superb shot, but Konig has the level-headedness to shine in the most turbulent and chaotic of situations. Harris shares some genuinely exceptional scenes with a young boy named Sacha (Gabriel Thomson, The New Adventures of Pinocchio). Sacha is a brave young lad boldly attempting to gather information from Konig by pretending to defect to the Germans. Harris plays these scenes in a fascinating manner. It's evident that he knows precisely what is going on, but the way he chooses to handle this information is somewhat surprising. His last scene with the boy is a queasy blend of sadness and terror that is intensely effective. I also loved Harris' final scene, an expert demonstration of subtle body language that says far more than words ever could.
The Blu-ray release offers a fairly stellar transfer of the film, though at times it's just a bit difficult to determine precisely how many of the "flaws" here are intentional. The film's visual style tends to jump around a bit here, going back and forth between slick, polished cinematography and jerky, grainy hand-held footage. That being said, there's a bit of grain here and there that seems unintentional. Scratches and flecks are kept to a minimum here, though a few can be spotted from time to time. Blacks are nice and deep, and the darker scenes in the film are rendered with surprising clarity. I was impressed by the audio here, which places the viewer right in the middle of the action. James Horner's long-lined score (which relies persistently on Horner's infamous four-note "danger motif") sounds truly exceptional here, rumbling and slithering through the speaker system to great dramatic effect. The battle sequences have a good bit of punch to them, giving your subwoofer plenty of opportunities to shake the room. There are a few dialogue scenes that sound just a bit quiet in contrast to everything else, but overall it's an impressive audio track.
Extras offer a brief reprise of the features found on the previous DVD release: two EPK-style making-of featurettes ("Through the Crosshairs" and "Inside Enemy at the Gates"), a few deleted scenes, and a theatrical trailer.
Enemy at the Gates could have been a remarkable film, were it not for the ridiculous love triangle that offers a good half-hour of padding. The subplot is not given enough time or attention to be truly engaging or satisfying, but it's given enough time to qualify as an irritating distraction from the truly compelling stuff. I can understand the desire to include it here. It adds the potential of reaching audience members who might typically avoid a war film but enjoy a good love story. It also adds a bit of sweet-natured respite to what is otherwise a fairly cold and brutal experience. Just imagine how one might feel if the film ended immediately after the big climax involving Vassili and Konig rather than cutting away to a bit of romantic syrup to ease the pain. Still, the subplot is a waste of time that takes the film from "great" to merely "good."
Also, I found some of the performances somewhat lacking here. The film certainly shows little regard for maintaining any sort of cultural consistency, casting a combination of British and American actors as Russians and Germans. Some of them employ accents, some of them don't. For instance, Jude Law sounds thoroughly British for most of the film, but Ron Perlman (in a brief but colorful role) employs a very thick Russian accent. Harris is the only one that manages not to seem distracting in one way or another. Additionally, I think Fiennes and Law are both perfectly tolerable actors, but they feel a bit lightweight for a big-budget "prestige picture" like this one. Fortunately, much of the film is driven by plot and suspense rather than character development (not always a good thing, but it certainly works to the film's advantage here).
The film looks fine and sounds great, but I'm not sure that I'd recommend an upgrade for those who all ready own the DVD due to a lack of new supplemental material. The standard-def version received very high marks for its transfer, though audiophiles will undoubtedly appreciate the considerable upgrade in that department. The film itself will be best appreciated by fans of good cinematic craftsmanship, not by history buffs that will be quick to note the many historical inaccuracies on display.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes