- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

"Enemy at the Gates" is the most distinctive and haunting war saga since "Saving Private Ryan," not to mention the first impressive major release of 2001.

Set against the backdrop of a famous battle of World War II, "Enemy" derives its title and somewhat fictionalized central plot about a duel to the death between accomplished snipers from a 1973 historical work by William Craig.

The titanic struggle at Stalingrad between German armies that expected to win a decisive victory before the end of 1942 and Soviet forces that reversed the tide of battle decisively in February 1943 provides an ominous framework and shattered physical setting for the intimate struggle: an account of how Soviet marksman Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) prevails in a cat-and-mouse stalking contest over the German officer, Maj. Konig (Ed Harris), who has been recruited to kill him.

"Enemy" marks a high point in the career of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is attracted frequently to daunting and ambitious subjects from "Quest for Fire" to "In the Name of the Rose" to "Seven Years in Tibet" but doesnt always execute them with astuteness and staying power.

Achieving a freshly effective blend of pictorial spectacle and absorbing human interest, Mr. Annaud echoes the methodology of "Ryan" to some extent. Two leading players, Mr. Law and Rachel Weisz as a young woman named Tania, are established in a preliminary sequence that depicts Russian troops being transported by boxcars to the eastern bank of the Volga River. Stalingrad is on the west bank. The newcomers confront a hellish environment at the end of the line: a city besieged, demolished and smoldering, with troop ferries obliged to navigate constant bombardment by artillery and aircraft.

It seems a miracle that Mr. Laws character survives the ride across the Volga. Yet Zaitsev not only survives, he also demonstrates his marksmanship with consummate lethal skill while sharing a precarious hiding place with an unskilled combatant, Joseph Fiennes as a political officer named Danilov.

Understandably grateful, Danilov soon finds it useful to call attention to Zaitsev when confronted with a commissar named Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins). Khrushchev, entrusted with the Stalingrad sector by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin himself, is ruthless in his insistence that the namesake city of "the boss" cannot be surrendered.

A country boy of limited education, Zaitsev is flattered when Danilov makes him the focus of patriotic propaganda. At the same time, Zaitsev finds a suitable combat role as a master sniper. The movie mentions that Zaitsev was involved actively in training other snipers, but it never adequately illustrates that side of his exploits.

He was credited with more than 200 kills while hunting Germans in Stalingrad. The Soviet snipers did enough damage while targeting officers to cause serious morale problems. The notoriety surrounding Zaitsev earned him the rivalry provided by Maj. Konig.

Tania re-enters the picture and attracts Danilov, who hopes to protect her and exploit her education by keeping her as a staff translator. She prefers combat and falls in love with Zaitsev while serving with his unit. The movie manages this triangle with restraint and intelligence while developing the stalking duel between Konig and Zaitsev and interweaving an eerily effective, heartbreaking subplot about a Russian boy, Sacha (Gabriel Marshall-Thompson), who shuttles between Danilov and Konig as a double agent, essentially loyal to the Soviet side.

One could quibble about certain aspects of the presentation, including the predominance of British accents. Nevertheless, the principal cast members are models of sincerity and concentration. Mr. Law, playing his first hero with a fundamentally simple and decent nature, enhances the impression that he and the camera enjoy an exceptional rapport.

The most conspicuous shortcomings intrude near the end. After devising a number of ingenious stalking matches, the filmmakers seem to suffer an imaginative burnout during the final showdown. Mr. Annaud also seems to let the love story float away in panoramic wistfulness during a tentative reunion sequence between Zaitsev and Tania.

Most of what the movie depicts has a sobering, gravely stirring effect that remains rare for the movies. Even with the softening tendencies, "Enemy at the Gates" should take an honored place among the classic movie dramatizations of World War II.

3 and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Enemy at the Gates"

RATING: R (Frequent graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details, in a context of World War II combat; fleeting profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Screenplay by Alain Godard and Mr. Annaud; based on the book by William Craig.

RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes

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