March 23, 2000

'Enemy at the Gates' features pretty faces, so much more

By Anna Roberts
Badger Herald
March 23, 2000

MPAA Rating: R Starring: Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Wiesz Director: Jean- Jacques Annaud Studio: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 131 minutes Rating: 4.0 stars (U-WIRE) U. of Wisconsin-The drama and bravery of World War II make great fodder for films. Good and evil are easily definable and the emotion behind such stories comes with the package. That's not to say that every World War II film is a ready-made hit-the entire production team has to work at it.

Thankfully, Enemy at the Gates has one of the hardest-working cast and crews in the business, as testament to their earlier works. The result is a quality picture with a strong story that only suffers from a willingness to do too much.

Enemy at the Gates begins its story at the battle for Stalingrad. As one of the defining moments of the war, the two-year conflict was instrumental for both Nazi and Russian troops. If captured, the Nazis would have the upper hand in the war, using the crucial location to advance their power.

Defending the city with soldiers and snipers, the Russian powers were able to trap the German forces and claim victory. Among the Russians was Vassili Zaitsev, the sniper's sniper, who, due to Russian newspapers and a 1942 type of celebrity reporting, became a national hero.

Enemy at the Gates focuses on Vassili, and, when played by immensely talented and handsome Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley), how can you not focus on him? Vassili's reputation is inflated due to the powerful pen of political officer and propagandist Danilov, played but fellow attractive acting powerhouse, Joseph Finnes (Shakespeare In Love).

Convinced that such a hero, even an exaggerated one, will restore hope in the troops, Vassili becomes the poster boy for Russian pride. The articles and photos have the desired effect, and not only does Vassili garner the attention of buxom beauty and ellow troop-ette, Tania (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy), but the Nazi troops as well. They send their own sharpshooter, Konig (Ed Harris, Pollock), to take out Vassili and help advanced the Nazi troops.

The opening battle sequence, with its dive-bombing planes, massive shootouts, and increasing body count, makes the viewer think twice about reaching for that second handful of popcorn. As powerful as it is, it is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan's battle scenes but falls short in the awe department.

The film sets up scene after scene of cat-and-mouse scenarios. And although the key element in the sniper field is to be still, these scenes have the exciting and suspenseful elements of a chase. Both Harris's and Law's careful demeanor and seriousness in their roles contribute to the believability of the film.

Enemy at the Gates could have been a flop and a weak attempt at a courageous story. The director could have easily thrown in a few talentless pretty boys and filmed them running around in the mud. Thankfully, the day we see Freddie Prinze Jr. in a military uniform has yet to come.

Annaud's best move in this picture was his casting. Law and Finnes are indeed of the pinup-boy caliber, yet their past efforts prove they're not just pretty faces. Enemy at the Gates is no different, and both actors turn in outstanding performances. Although their good-looking faces may be covered in dirt throughout the film, it is their talent that becomes the enticing thing to watch.

If anything, these stars are used to a challenge, and although Enemy at the Gates is a good picture, it is in no way a Best Picture. The script asks little more of its cast than to show up and give a B-plus effort. The back story of the characters is almost nonexistent, except for the token Sniper Jr. scene of Vassili hunting with his grandfather.

In fact, little is learned about Finnes's or Harris's character, and the romance between Vasilli and Tania is touching at times but not much more than an afterthought. The film introduces too many elements of personal history and never truly explores them; it is hard to feel a part of the film because of the lack of connection to the characters.

Still, the tactics of the two snipers and the situations that have them going head to head are some of the most suspenseful scenes in the theaters these days. A sniper's best friend is his eyes, and the director plays on this, giving the viewer extreme close-ups and interesting point-of-view shots. Enemy at the Gates may leave the heart a little unsatisfied, but the mind and eyes will love it.

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