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Enemy at the Gates (March 21/01)

The opening sequence of Enemy at the Gates resembles the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which might explain why it's virtually impossible to find a review for this film that doesn't compare it to Spielberg's war epic. It's World War II and the Russian army is heading into Stalingrad to fight the Germans. Coming in by boat, they find themselves under attack from German warplanes. Soldiers foolish enough to jump overboard in terror are quickly shot by their own commanding officers. A gruesome battle ensues, and one Russian soldier (Jude Law) survives and kills five German officers with his sniper rifle. A fellow Russian (Joseph Fiennes) also survives and turns Law into a hero. The Germans don't like the idea of a hero running around getting morale up, so they send in a deadly sniper (Ed Harris) to eliminate the threat. Also on hand is a fiery female soldier that falls in love with Law, while Fiennes helplessly looks on.

Enemy at the Gates is a good movie that could have been great, if not for its inflated running time. For the first hour or so, it's a riveting and exciting film. The mano-e-mano scenes with Harris and Law are terrific; they're suspenseful and tense, and it was great to see these two great actors at peak form. But then the movie just sort of goes on and on....and on. Add to that a silly love triangle subplot, and you have a movie that could easily have lost 45 minutes and been great.

But before it becomes tedious, there is a lot to like about Enemy at the Gates. First and foremost is Jude Law. The best thing about The Talented Mr. Ripley, Law finally gets a role that showcases his talent. He has to be cocky and tough, while still appearing sympathetic enough to warrant the love story with Weisz, and he pulls it off. Ditto Harris. His steely-eyed gaze is on full display here, and he plays this evil character with humanity. The temptation must have been there to go full-out evil (a la Kiefer Sutherland in Eye for an Eye), but Harris plays the character as a guy doing a job and nothing more. Fiennes and Weisz are good, but uninteresting. The focus of the film should have been on Law and Harris, and not the silly love triangle.

Some of the sniping scenes are quite exciting, though it did become a little laughable the way soldiers kept accompanying Law on various escapades, only to get shot in the head by Harris. I would imagine there would come a point at which a to-be-recruited soldier would simply shake his head and say "nothin' doing!" But nevertheless, those scenes are quite good, although many critics have complained that they're not suspenseful, since you know neither of them can die until the end. Well, the same can be said about virtually any action film. No, the suspense comes from wondering what these two crack shots will do next. I particularly enjoyed the look of satisfaction on Harris' face after shooting a piece of string employed by Law to retrieve a rifle.

Enemy at the Gates won't be recognized come Oscar time, but had the love story angle of the movie been excised, I have no doubt the film would have been as heralded as Saving Private Ryan.

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© David Nusair