If the story of Russian military sharpshooter Vassili Zaitsev weren't true, then it might have been fabricated by the well-oiled Soviet propaganda machine.
The tale, recounted in Enemy at the Gates, a well-intended, ambitious war picture about the Nazis' failed attempt to conquer Stalingrad during World War II, makes for a potent story line. A young peasant (Jude Law of The Talented Mr. Ripley) makes good as an ace sniper on the front lines, and he has turned into a beloved national hero through the efforts of his friend, political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love).
There's more: The two suffer the misfortune of falling in love with a bright, beautiful soldier, Tania (Rachel Weisz), a Jewish woman whose parents were executed by the Germans. Our hero isn't troubled only by matters of the heart. He's being pursued by Major Konig (Ed Harris), a talented German sniper known for his aristocratic manners and his dogged determination to kill his prey. It's a cat-and-mouse game, a love story, a class-struggle commentary and a history lesson, all rolled into one.
Jean-Jacques Arnaud, the French-born director of Seven Years in Tibet and The Name of the Rose, manages a misfire, despite those potent raw materials. The intrigue, with few exceptions, isn't nearly as suspenseful as it ought to be, and the romantic triangle is less than compelling.
The failure isn't for lack of trying, though. The wannabe epic, an international production made on a budget reportedly stretching to nearly $100-million, opens with an impressively photographed battle sequence.
Hundreds of Soviet soldiers arrive outside Stalingrad by train, then attempt to make their way across the River Volga to the city. Boatloads of young fighters are cut down by bullets from German planes. Limbs are shorn, and we're subjected the sight of open wounds, bodies piled up in bloodied water and merciless officers shooting desperate deserters. It's impossible not to be reminded of the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
The rest of Enemy at the Gates, shot on location in an eastern Germany locale transformed into a meticulously recreated approximation of a bombed-out, crumbling Red Square, doesn't quite match the impact of the film's beginning.
Harris, an Oscar nominee for his portrayal of the title character in Pollock, turns in the most impressive work here, with a nearly wordless performance as the polished Konig, an expert marksman with a sly smile and a heart of stone.
The cast also includes Bob Hoskins, in a cameo as Nikita Khrushchev, dispatched by "the boss," Stalin, to defend Stalingrad at all costs; and Ron Perlman, as a war veteran and the token cynic, a man whose teeth were hammered out by his suspicious comrades. He jokingly recalls the good times of the past "when our Joseph and their Adolf were walking hand in hand." It's the rare bright line in a movie, peopled with characters speaking in British, American and Eastern European accents, marked by dialogue that's as routine as its direction.
Enemy at the Gates
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins, Ed Harris, Ron Perlman.
Screenplay: Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud
Running Time: 131 min.