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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/22/01

Enemy at the Gates
2001 (2001) - Mandalay Pictures/Paramount (Paramount)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Enemy at the Gates Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A+/B

Specs and Features

131 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:08:22, at the start of chapter 12), Amaray keep case packaging, Through the Crosshairs featurette, Inside Enemy at the Gates featurette, 9 deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

Danilov: "If you kill him, you could win the war for us."

Vassili: "What if he kills me?"

Danilov: "Then we'll finally have someone to avenge."

Enemy at the Gates is a film that melds together two of the most interesting things I can think of: snipers and WWII. Perhaps the most dangerous, and definitely the most mysterious soldier of them all, the sniper has been largely ignored by Hollywood. This probably has something to do with the fact that so much of what the sniper does is sit motionless for hours or days in wait for his or her prey. On the surface, it doesn't seem too interesting. I invite you to view Enemy at the Gates so that you may grow to respect what these lethal, chameleon-like soldiers are capable of, and the range of emotions you might experience if you were being hunted by one of your own. You might also want to keep in mind, as you watch the film, that the events were based on a true story, and several of the film's characters actually existed.

It's the autumn of 1942, and Nazi Germany's bloody shadow is looming all across Europe. The Nazis wish to claim the oil fields of Asia in order to gain a major foothold in their war effort. One last obstacle faces the Germans: Stalingrad. As the Nazis blazed across Russia on the way to their destination, the Russian army suffered extreme losses, both in manpower and supplies. By the time the Germans get to Stalingrad, the Russian military is on its last leg, ready to crumble. If Stalingrad falls, all hope is lost.

Enter a young Russian soldier named Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). In the wane of an intense stand-off in Red Square, Vassili is able to skillfully, and within a matter of seconds, slay two Nazi officers and three Nazi foot soldiers with a bolt-action rifle - all killed by a precise head shot. Witness to this daring act is Russian political war officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). As the sunken spirits and defeatist attitude of the entire Russian army spreads like a terrible disease, the leader of the Russian army at Stalingrad, Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), desperately tries to find some way to frighten the army into action. Danilov suggests that the army, and the entire country, needs a hero to idolize and follow - a shining star that will lead them out of the darkness of the Nazi invasion. Danilov and the Russian propaganda machine exploit Vassili's bravery, and the young sharpshooter grows in celebrity around the country. As Vassili kills more and more German officers, the Nazis become quite distressed, and bring in their country's most skilled sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to exterminate Vassili. The plan is to kill Vassili so that German officers will stop dying in rapid succession, and the spirit of the Russian people will be broken.

During Vassili's rise to fame, and his eventual struggle with Major Konig, the Russian sniper falls in love with a local militia member, the intense Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz). The problem is, Danilov falls just as hard and a love triangle develops that could end the close friendship between Vassili and Danilov. Since Tania is educated, and speaks German fluently, Danilov wants her to be a code breaker, far away from the violence and danger of the battlefield. But Tania is a fighter, and has a score to settle with the Germans. Vassili sees the warrior in her, and supports her desire to be on the front lines. As the story of Enemy at the Gates plays out, a palpable intensity builds. Struggling with love's grasp in the midst of war, and an enemy who is superior in skill, Vassili must carefully control his emotions and instincts if he is to rise to victory. And it's this emotional internal struggle that demonstrates perfectly why films about snipers can work, given the proper scenario.

Enemy at the Gates is an engrossing film with interesting characters, and some genuinely intense moments. You won't find very many large-scale battle scenes a la Saving Private Ryan, but what you get are a few medium-scale battle scenes and many smaller, more personal stand-offs, which convey a greater sense of personal intensity. Instead of grand, larger-than-life scenes like the invasion of Normandy Beach, Enemy relies on the private, introspective struggles that a sniper would experience. This movie definitely goes further in its character development than many other recent films based on war (save for The Thin Red Line) and, as a result, Enemy is just as interesting a character study as it is an intense film about war.

But nothing is perfect, and that also applies to Enemy at the Gates. I'd like to say for the record that I like Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz. I think this is a group of very talented up and coming British actors that will most likely have long and full careers in Hollywood. And, it's also a nice change to see the talented Rachel Weisz in a film where she's not being chased by dead things for two hours. However, Law, Fiennes and Weisz are about as Russian as a group of cockney bootblacks... it was like the Russian army had taken out "help wanted" ads in The London Times. The fact that the filmmakers chose to populate this film (a vast majority of which is focused on the Russians) with British actors really hurt its aura of authenticity. Watching Enemy, I was constantly having to remind myself that British = Russian, and that's a major stumbling block for a film relying so much on the authentic recreation of history. And as intense and evil as Ed Harris was in this film, he is still a high-profile American actor wearing a Nazi officer's uniform. Thankfully, this casting decision didn't hurt the film as much because Harris didn't have nearly as many lines as the Russian characters. But the least he could have done was to spend a little time with a dialect coach and adopt a German accent. I would really liked to have seen a cast full of well-known Russian actors. I don't think this would have necessarily hurt North American ticket sales, because Law, Fiennes and Weisz aren't exactly up there in the pantheon of Cruise, Pitt and Roberts, and the film was fairly well marketed.

Paramount has ramped up its DVD effort considerably over the last year or two, and Enemy at the Gates stands as one of the studio's bright and shining stars when it comes down to audio/video quality. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically encoded, of course), this DVD exhibits a sharp image full of fine picture detail, which brings to life the grittiness and chaos of the ruins of Stalingrad. Colors are spot-on accurate and black level are deep and convincing. The only complaint I have revolves around a few brief bouts of compression artifacting, but it's not nearly enough of a problem to detract from the overall experience.

And it just keeps getting better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track featured on this disc is a blow-'em-down, knock-your-socks-off experience that can sometimes hit as quickly and as furiously as one of Vassili's shots to the forehead. Deep bass during some of the heavier battle scenes extends into the lowest frequency ranges, and the rear channels are used amply, sometimes in split formation, to completely involve the listener in every facet of the action on-screen. Bullets whiz by into the rear channels, the dreaded planes of the Luftwaffe buzz around the listening space and Vassili's rifle cracks with authority. Dialog is always easily intelligible with an accurate tonality and, during quieter moments, the track continues to stay energized with ambient activity. Plus, the James Horner soundtrack sounds cool, even if it does recall moments from his score for Star Trek II. All in all, this is great DVD audio.

As for extras, Paramount has included a set of nine deleted scenes that are all spectacular, and well worth a look. In fact, the quote I chose for the beginning of this review is from one of these scenes. The scenes further enhance the story and the characters, and are well acted. They would have fit beautifully into the film. However, I can understand that for pacing reasons the scenes needed to go, because as good as they are, they would have slowed down the flow of this film a little too much. Next are two featurettes that give a nice look at the making of the film, but are still a bit on the promotional side. Through the Crosshairs runs about 20 minutes, and is complete with interviews by the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage. Each cast member discusses his or her character, and a brief history of the film is discussed. Next is a 15-minutes featurette entitled Inside Enemy at the Gates. This piece features interviews by director Jean-Jacques Annaud and stars Law, Fiennes and Weisz. Some backstage anecdotes are discussed, as well as how the actors prepared for their roles. Rounding out the supplements is the film's theatrical trailer. All in all, this is a nice set of extras (especially the deleted scenes), but I was hoping for a bit more depth about the making of the film, and the real history behind the film's story.

Enemy at the Gates is a wonderful movie about the internal struggles of a soldier caught up in desperate times. It's an interesting character study, and also includes some intense battle scenarios to please action fans. Both the film and the DVD are definitely recommended.

Greg Suarez
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